New York Public Library Muhlenberg Branch
209-211 West 23rd Street
New York, NY 10011
Block: 773 Lot: 38
Lot Area: 4,099 sq ft (38.75’ x 98.75’)
Number of floors: 3
Building Area: 2,557.5 sq ft (estimated)
Year(s) built: 1906
Year opened: 1906
Architect(s): Carrere and Hastings
Builder(s): E.E. Paul Company
Status: Library, New York City individual landmark
Late 19th & 20th Century Revivals
Italian Renaissance Revival
Walls: Brick, Limestone
Other: Square pediments with foliated brackets, circle-and-sheaf frieze, and a modillioned, dentillated cornice
The Muhlenberg library is located on the north side of West 23rd Street between 7th and 8th Avenue, closer to 7th. The building is set up against the sidewalk.
Designed by Carrere and Hastings in 1906, the Muhlenberg Branch was one of fourteen Carnegie libraries the preeminent architectural firm would build, in addition to designing the Main Building of The New York Public Library. The Muhlenberg Branch is the eleventh of twenty Carnegie branch libraries built in Manhattan and the twenty-eighth of sixty-seven throughout the whole city.
The building has several characteristics of the urban Carnegie library type. It has a vertical plan, a classically-inspired style (a simplified Beaux-Arts model that was the preferred style for public structures in the early-Twentieth Century), three stories, 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. 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 Muhlenberg Branch has played this civic role in Chelsea for over a century, especially since it was next to a YMCA and south of the YMCA dormitory when it was completed.[i]
The Muhlenberg Branch is a New York City Individual Landmark and continues to operate as a branch of the New York Public Library.
Construction and Layout:
Typical of the urban Carnegie branches, the Muhlenberg library is a three-story, three-bay structure with only one side facing the street. The building is situated in mid-block on a busy cross street in a densely built and heavily populated part of New York. Its walls are brick and the front is faced in Bedford Indiana limestone with a base composed of Milford Maine granite. The library is topped by a flat roof.
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. The arched entrance doorway is situated in the right, as opposed to the center bay so that more light can circulate throughout the first floor reading room through two tall, adjacent windows. All three first-floor archways are topped by decorative keystones. Flanking the entrance on either side two four-sided bronze lanterns with foliated brackets. The words “New York Public Library” are etched into each panel and each lantern is crowned with a bronze pineapple. To the left of the doorway is an historic bronze Carnegie Library plaque.
A molded stone cornice with a circle-and-sheaf frieze interrupted by the keystones separates the ground floor from the upper floors. Directly above the cornice, a projecting sill spans the width of the façade. The second-floor windows are bordered with pedimented stone enframements. Foliated brackets with swags support each pediment. Below the pediments, there is a foliated-circle frieze and a shallow stone panel below the sash in each window. On the third level, the smaller windows have a simpler border with eared lintels and bracketed sills. The windows have wooden mullions that separate the sash, along with fixed transoms.
Topping the front façade is a projecting stone cornice with foliated modillions, dentils, and a Greek fret pattern above a thin molded stone band. Similar to the first floor, the third floor windows interrupt the cornice frieze, which can give the impression of four pilasters that frame the façade from the first floor cornice to the Greek key fret. Above the cornice is a stone parapet with slightly projecting panels on either end, with the words “THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY” incised in the center. The library also has a secondary east façade faced in brick, with one window in the center of the second and third floors, just south of the chimney.
In 1920, the front steps and the iron pipe rail fence in the front were removed. Most likely during the same renovation, the two basement windows were filled with granite in order to match the base. Subsequently, the windows and door were replicated and a brick elevator bulkhead was added to the eastern part of the roof. A non-historic aluminum flag pole is attached between the two easternmost windows on the second floor facade. The two large front windows on the first floor and the two east façade windows all have 12-light casement. There is a 6-light replacement transom above the entrance doors. The first and third floor windows have replacement sash.
Each floor has a rectangular layout with large, spacious rooms filled with natural light – an adults’ reading room on the first floor, children’s reading room on the second, an auditorium on the third, and a custodian’s apartment in the back penthouse. The 1920 renovation saw the alteration of the vestibule.
[i] “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.