New York Public Library Seward Park Branch
192 East Broadway
New York, NY 10002
Block: 311 Lot: 31
Lot Area: 6,050 sq ft (52.25’ x 116.25’)
Number of floors: 3
Building Area: 4,507 sq ft (estimated)
Year(s) built: 1909
Year opened: 1909
Architect(s): Babb, Cook & Welch
Builder(s): Richard Deeves & Company
Status: Library, Designated New York City individual Landmark June 25, 2013
Late 19th & 20th Century Revivals
Walls: Brick, Limestone
Other: Rusticated limestone base, brick facade with corner quoins, bracketed square pediments, former roof garden
Originally part of Aguilar Free Library Society since 1886, the Seward Park Branch of the New York Public Library opened on November 11, 1909.[i] The building is located on the eastern side of Seward Park, on the north side of East Broadway across from the juncture of East Broadway and Jefferson Street. Designed by the architectural firm of Babb, Cook & Welch[ii], the structure is one of twenty Carnegie branches built in Manhattan and one of sixty-seven throughout the whole city. Richard Deeves & Company, the builder, also constructed the Morrisania (1908), West 40th Street (1913), and Woodstock (1914) Branches.
The land for the site was purchased from Morris Singer for $150,000 in 1907 and Mr. and Mrs. Clarence R. Conger, Samuel Kempner et al., and Rebecca Isaer for $66,500 in 1908. Equipment and construction cost $150,153, for a total cost of $366,653, making the Seward Park Branch the most expensive Carnegie library constructed in Greater New York.[iii]
The Seward Park Branch’s facade includes aspects from both the urban and suburban Carnegie types. Like the Manhattan libraries, the building is designed in a Renaissance Revival style with a rusticated limestone base, corner quoins, and bracketed square pediments. Tall, large windows allow an abundance of light into each reading room. Similar to the branches in the outer boroughs, the library’s second and third floors feature red brick walls accented with limestone ornamentation.
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 Seward Park Branch has played this civic role for over a century.[iv] In its first decades, the library served as a hub for the neighborhood’s vibrant Jewish community. Located across the street from the Jewish Daily Forward Building,[v] the Seward Park Branch was at the political and cultural center of the Lower East Side in the early 20th Century. The library now serves a mixed neighborhood of Jews, Hispanics, African-Americans and Asian-Americans.[vi]
The library is a New York City Landmark and continues to operate as part of the New York Public Library. The building was significantly renovated in 1953, and the original pendant lighting fixtures were replaced with fluorescent lights. The door and windows are non-historic, although the new windows retain the original sash pattern. Since the building’s completion, the west facade’s first-floor central bay was converted into an additional entranceway, with non-historic concrete steps flanked by brick piers topped with lighting fixtures with globe lights. A non-historic metal ramp for handicap accessibility leads up to the left side of the steps.
The surrounding blocks have changed significantly since the library’s opening. Since the branch was built on a corner site, the building’s eastern wall was flush with a row of tenement houses that extended along the north side of East Broadway, which was interrupted by Clinton Street, Montgomery Street, and Gouverneur Street. The library was only slightly taller than the houses. The rows of tenements and streets between East Broadway and Grand Street were demolished and replaced by the Seward Park Cooperative apartments in 1959-1960.[vii] The development left the library’s solid east wall exposed. Whereas the building looked more integrated into the surrounding urban fabric in 1909, it is now more isolated with Seward Park to the west and widely spaced housing developments to the north and east.
Construction and Layout:
The Seward Park library has an atypical plan for a Manhattan Carnegie branch. Instead of being situated mid-block with only one facade facing the street, the building is located on a corner lot and takes up the width of an entire [former] city block. As opposed to a standard rectangular plan, the single-bay entrance wings project a full bay from the shorter sides, creating a T-shaped plan. A wrought-iron fence with a stone base and stone posts borders the south, west, and north sides of the building (creating an approximately three-foot wide moat).
Both the fence and the plan make the Seward Park Branch more similar to the suburban Carnegie library type. Located mostly in the less densely populated areas of the Bronx, Brooklyn, Staten Island and Queens, these branches are most often freestanding T-shaped structures within a larger lot (most often they are surrounded by a lawn), and have a symmetrical layout. The library is topped by a flat roof that was originally used for an outdoor reading room during the warmer months.
The facade is executed in the Renaissance Revival style, with a combination of arched and rectangular windows that become progressively smaller towards the top. The Seward Park Branch is seven bays long, three bays thick and three stories high. The western facade has a severe stone base punctured by basement-level windows with non-historic metal grating. A chamfered, rusticated stone band anchors the first story, and extends around the entire building, with the exception of the eastern wall. The first floor facade is composed of four arched windows and a central, arched entrance, each of which is separated by piers faced with rusticated limestone. Projecting keystones and limestone voussoirs frame the arches. The central bay contains non-historic entrance doors and an arched transom. The words “Seward Park Branch” appear on the door’s lintel. Imitation period lanterns flank the entrance. A limestone band course divides the first and second stories.
The second and third-floor facade is faced in red brick arranged in a Flemish bond. Limestone quoins border the facade at each corner. The tall, rectangular second-floor windows have limestone enframements with square pediments supported by scroll brackets. There is non-historic metal railing at the base of the windows. The smaller rectangular third floor windows feature projecting sills and Doric/Neoclassical enframements.
Capping the west facade is a plain limestone frieze that extends around the entire building with the exception of the eastern wall. In the center are the engraved words “NEW YORK PVBLIC LIBRARY,” above which is a dentillated, modillioned cornice that also continues around the library. The parapet features a balustrade interrupted by square-shaped piers with Tuscan moldings. A group of three piers mark each corner of the balustrade. The piers support decorative copper structural beams that originally supported the no longer extant glass canopy for the outdoor reading room.
The north and south facades of the building’s main frame are identical to the west facade with some exceptions. Instead of arched windows, the ground floor features rectangular windows with flat arches. The stone enframements on the second-floor windows are without brackets. The west facades of the two projecting bays are also similar to the main facade with notable differences. The ground floor rectangular window is also rectangular with a flat arch, but is much smaller. The second-story window enframements also have no brackets. The facades’ corners feature limestone quoins. In place of a balustrade is an additional floor above each bay extension. Each facade has a red brick panel with a limestone frame. The facades are capped by a plain limestone cornice and parapet.
The north and south facades of the two projecting bays are identical to the bays’ western facades, with observable differences. The first floors feature arched entrances with rusticated stone voussoirs, scrolled stone keystones and smooth enframements that surround the non-historic doors and transoms. The second-floor window enframements have scrolled brackets and limestone quoins border the facades on either side. Each fourth-floor facade contains paired windows, additional quoins, and a plain limestone cornice and parapet.
The south doorway, which was the original main entrance to the building, is approached by a set of historic stone steps flanked by original carved stone posts. The steps now feature non-historic metal railings. The arched entrance is flanked by non-historic metal lamps. To the left of the doorway is an historic metal plaque.
The more than 20,000 square foot interior features a wood paneled vestibule with an original Doric wood frame that borders a metal-encased bulletin board. Additional aspects of the interior include high ceilings with plaster moldings, rectangular columns with molded Tuscan capitals, decorative scrolls, the original staircase with iron railing, and wood window trim. The third floor reading room features an original wooden display case, historic bulletin boards with wooden Doric frames with carved rosettes in each corner and dentillated cornices.
The library contains Adult/Young Adult collections on the ground floor, a Children’s Library and Story Hour Room on the second, and Reference material and additional Adult/Young Adult Collections on the third. There is a Center for Reading and Writing and a Community Room in the basement. On each floor, an early or historic elevator for books (or a book lift) is located at the end of the south wing. The two projecting bays to the north and south are used for offices.
The staircase is flush with the eastern wall, creating expansive, light-filled reading rooms on each story. On the ground floor, non-historic windows separate the main room from the stairs. The stairway features historic iron railing with wrought iron hooks attached along the banister. There are two cast iron scroll ornaments on the bottom side of each cross beam that spans the space above each stairway between the first and second floors. The ceiling in the stairwell between the second and third floor reaches the height of the third floor. A smaller set of stairs (located just west of the main stairway) leads to staff offices. The staircase features original cast iron scrolls and paneled posts with dentil ornament.
[ii] The Seward Park Branch is the only Carnegie library by Babb, Cook & Welch. The architecture firm is also known for the 100-foot Henry Hudson Memorial Column in Spuyten Duyvil in Riverdale. The immense Doric column was completed in 1912 by public subscription after the 1909 Hudson-Fulton Celebration. (Norval White & Elliot Willensky, AIA Guide to New York City, 4th ed. (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2000), 604.)
[iii] William A. Prendergast, Comptroller, Record of Real Estate Owned by the City of New York, December 31, 1914, NYC: Department of Finance, Bureau of Municipal Investigation and Statistics, 145.
[iv] “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.
[v] The headquarters for the Jewish Daily Forward was designed by architect George A. Boehm in 1912. The Forward was a progressive Yiddish publication founded by the Jewish Socialist Press Federation in 1897 as tool for community building and helping generations of Jewish immigrants integrate into American life. In addition to news coverage, the paper had a commitment to democratic socialism, Jewish trade unionism, and social justice. Under Abraham Cahan, editor from 1903 to 1951, the Forward became the most circulated Yiddish-language newspaper in America, as well as the voice of the Lower East Side, then known as “The Ghetto.” Shirley Zavin, Designation List 184 LP-1419: Forward Building (New York: Landmarks Preservation Commission, March 18, 1986), and Jewish Daily Forward, History: http://www.forward.com/about/history/, and Encyclopedia Britannica: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/303579/Jewish-Daily-Forward).