New York Public Library Columbus Branch
742 Tenth Avenue
New York, NY 10019
Block: 1060 Lot: 63
Lot Area: 4,950 sq ft (49.5’ x 100’)
Number of floors: 2
Building Area: 4,413.33 sq ft (estimated)
Year(s) built: 1909
Year opened: 1909
Architect(s): Babb, Cook & Willard
Builder(s): Thomas J. Brady Company
Status: Library, no designation
Late 19th & 20th Century Revivals
Italian Renaissance Revival
Walls: Masonry, Limestone, Granite
Other: Second floor features alternating triangular and arched pediments, interior includes historic oak-paneled entrance and original iron staircase railing, third floor has been removed
The Columbus library is located on the east side of 10th Avenue betweenWest 50th and West 51st Streets. It is one of twenty Carnegie libraries built in Manhattan and one of sixty-seven throughout the whole city. Designed by Babb, Cook & Willard in 1909, the Columbus Branch was one of seven Carnegie libraries the architectural firm would build. The Babb, Cook & Willard Carnegie Branches are Mott Haven (1905), 67th Street (1905), 96th Street (1905), Webster (1906), 58th Street (1907), Morrisania (1908), St. Agnes (1908), and Columbus (1909). The firm is known primarily for New York buildings such as the Andrew and Louise Carnegie House (now the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum) (1899-1903), the DeVinne Press Building (1885-6), the Caroline Ladd Pratt House (229 Clinton Avenue) (1895), and the north wing of 245 Clinton Avenue (1901) at St. Joseph’s College.[i] The Columbus library is the only Carnegie branch built by the Thomas J. Brady Company.
The building has several characteristics of the urban Carnegie library type. It has a classically-inspired style (a simplified Beaux-Arts model that was the preferred style for public structures in the early-Twentieth Century), an arched entrance that is not central, ornamental stone masonry, and tall, large arched windows on the first floor that allow an abundance of light into a relatively simple interior. Originally designed with three stories, the top floor was subsequently removed. The urban branches were located in densely populated Manhattan and in some neighborhoods in the Bronx.
The New York City Carnegie branch libraries were designed to be distinct structures, a new concept at the turn of the Twentieth Century when most branches were simply located in other buildings. They were intended to be important fixtures in the community and centrally located in a neighborhood. The Carnegie Committee had a policy to locate branches in close proximity to public buildings such as schools, social service centers, public baths, or YM/YWCA’s. The Columbus Branch has played this civic role in Hell’s Kitchen for over a century.[ii]
The Columbus Branch continues to serve as a branch of the New York Public Library. The building was significantly altered in 1960 when the entire third floor was removed. The windows and entrance door are non-historic, and the front stone steps have been removed.
Construction and Layout:
Typical of the urban Carnegie branches, the Columbus library was designed as a three-story, three-bay structure with only one side facing the street. The building is situated in mid-block in a densely built and heavily populated part of New York. The front entrance is marked with two stone posts. The building has masonry walls and the front is covered in Indiana limestone with a Maine granite base. The library is topped by a flat roof. Originally, the library featured a roof garden with a glass canopy, then known as an open-air reading room, for the warmer months.
The facade is designed in the Italian Renaissance Revival style, with a combination of arched and rectangular windows that get progressively smaller towards the top. There are two rectangular window openings to the basement, one of which has been covered. On the first floor, the arched entrance doorway is situated in the left, as opposed to the center bay so that more light can circulate throughout the first floor reading room through two tall, arched adjacent windows. A severe limestone band course separates the first and second floors.
The second story features three rectangular windows with recessed sills and projecting enframements. Each window is crowned with a stone pediment supported by two consoles. The side windows have triangular pediments while the center window features an arched pediment. Another severe band course crowns the façade, making the library roughly the same height as the building to the right. The former third-floor windows were filled in with replacement stone.
In the original design, the third floor featured slightly smaller rectangular windows with plain stone enframements beneath a decorative architrave and a plain frieze with the words “NEW YORK PVBLIC LIBRARY.” Capping the façade was a dentillated, modillioned cornice and a parapet with a balustrade, which served as the edge of the roof garden. Four stone posts (parallel with the spaces between the building’s three bays) interrupted the balustrade.
Each floor has a rectangular layout with large, spacious rooms filled with natural light. The high ceilings have been faced with later 20th Century acoustical tile. Original features include an oak-paneled entrance vestibule, rectangular plaster columns with Tuscan capitals, and the staircase with a decorative iron railing.
[i] Norval White & Elliot Willensky, AIA Guide to New York City, 4th ed. (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2000), 161, 429, 705.
[ii] “The Trustees are of the opinion that in establishing branch libraries it is of great importance to establish them, as far as possible, in conspicuous positions on well frequented streets. In some measure the same principles should be applied that would govern in the selection of a site for a retail store. The fact that a branch library is constantly before the eyes of the neighboring residents so that all are familiar with its location will undoubtedly tend to increase its usefulness.” George L. Rives, Secretary of The New York Public Library (1901). From the NYPL Executive Committee Minutes as quoted in Phyllis Dain, The New York Public Library (New York: New York Public Library, 1972), 237, in Mary B. Dierickx, The Architecture of Literacy: The Carnegie Libraries of New York City (New York: The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art and The New York City Department of General Services, 1996), 27.