New York Public Library West 135th Street Branch
Schomburg Collection for Research in Black Culture
103 West 135th Street
Manhattan, New York
Block: 1920, Lot: 26
Lot Area: 11,624 sq. ft. (50’ x 199.83’)
Number of Floors: 3
Building Area: 10,162 sq. ft. (40.5’ x 80’)
Year built: 1905
Architect(s): McKim, Mead & White
Builder(s): Michael Reid & Company
Designation: Individual New York City landmark, designated 1981 (LP-1133), nominated to the State and National Register 1978 (record number 375441)
Architectural Classification: Classical Revival
Other: Wrought iron tympanum
Located in the middle of the block on the north side of 135th Street in the heart of Harlem, the Schomburg Collection for Research in Black Culture became a center of African-American culture during the Harlem Renaissance. Countless African-American writers, artists, and intellectuals were drawn to this library throughout the 1920s and 1930s, not only for its celebrated collections of African-American literature and history but also cultural events such as weekly lectures given by such notable figures as W.E.B. DuBois, Franz Boas, and Carl Van Doren. The library also housed a W.P.A. Writers Project and the American Negro Theater where a number of African-American actors, including Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte, made their debuts.
Known as the 135th Street Branch when it opened on July 4, 1905, the library was renamed the “135th Street Branch Division of Negro Literature” in 1925 in reference to the small collection African-American literature and history that librarian Ernestine Rose had been assembling since the early 1920s. The library became officially known as the “Schomburg Collection for Research in Black Culture” in 1926 when the New York Public Library purchased the Schomburg Collection of African American Literature and Art as part of a gift from the Carnegie Corporation.
Designed by McKim, Mead & White in 1904, the Schomburg Collection for Research in Black Culture recalls the dignified Classically inspired proportions and aesthetic of the firm’s other branch libraries. It is the eighth Carnegie branch library to be erected in Manhattan and one of nine to be designed by McKim, Mead & White and built by Michael Reid & Company. The site was purchased by the New York Public Library for $28,000. The building was erected for $75,282.
A large addition, designed by Louis Abramson, was added to the rear of the library in 1941, doubling the size of the building. In 1991, a second addition was added to the rear so that the library now stretches from one side of the block to the other. The address of the 1991 addition is 104 West 136th Street.
The Schomburg Collection for Research in Black Culture was designated a New York City individual landmark in 1981. It was nominated to the State and National Registers in 1978 for its significant role in the documentation of African American culture.
Construction and Layout:
The Schomburg Collection for Research in Black Culture is a formal Classically inspired design that rises three stories high and is rectangular in plan. It is a freestanding masonry construction with limestone cladding and a flat roof.
The principal façade is organized into three vertical bays. The main entrance to the library is located in the easternmost bay and is accessed by ascending six granite steps, which are flanked by cast iron railings that are original to the design. A large window located in the westernmost bay of the façade balances the placement of the main entrance. Windows of the first floor are fixed rectangular divided lights that replicate the fenestration pattern of the original casement windows. A doublewide window marks the center of the first floor and is bordered by narrow two-over-six windows.
The first and second floors are separated by a wide band course that features a series of richly carved pattern of alternating open books and acanthus wreaths. Four engaged pilasters with decorative capitals extend from the second to the third floors.
The outer bays of the second floor are composed of large double-hung six-over-six windows that recall those of the first floor. A large Palladian window, with crowning fanlight and two narrow sidelights make up the central bay of the second story. The fanlight is screened with a decorative wrought-iron grille and capped by a sizeable cartouche featuring the seal of the City of New York.
Windows of the third floor are small, single-paned and narrow. A deeply projecting modillion cornice tops the building. The entablature is inscribed: “NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY” at the center. At this time, ivy conceals much of the ornamental detail of the façade.
Upon travelling through the main entrance, library visitors find themselves in a wood-paneled vestibule original to the McKim, Mead, & White design. Beyond is a large circulation room with open light-filled reading areas.
As a result of extensive renovations, the round plaster columns and the cast iron staircase leading to the children’s reading room on the second floor and additional reading areas on the third floor are the only original features that remain.