Queens Borough Public Library, Richmond Hill Branch
118-14 Hillside Avenue
Queens, NY 11418
Block: 9264 Lot: 56
Lot Area: 21,690 sq ft (282.33’ x 164.58’)
Number of floors: 1
Building Area: 6,200 sq ft (estimated)
Year(s) built: 1905
Year opened: 1905
Architect(s): Tuthill & Higgins
Status: Library, no designation
Late 19th & 20th Century Revivals
Walls: Brick, Stone
Roof: Standing Seam Metal
Other: The building is situated on a large triangular lot; the façade features Ionic columns, Ionic architrave with fasciae, and scrolled brackets; the interior contains a Colonial Revival fireplace and WPA murals by Philip Evergood.
The genesis of the Queens library corporation was the Long Island City Public Library, established from the collection of William Nelson in 1896. After the consolidation of the five boroughs into Greater New York in 1898, the library was known as the Queens Borough Library, and was responsible for the entire borough. Independent libraries such as Flushing, Poppenhusen and Richmond Hill merged with the new municipal library, and were eventually housed in Carnegie buildings. The Queens Borough Library acquired its current name, the Queens Borough Public Library, in 1907. Similar to the Brooklyn Public Library, the Queens system was an independent corporation whose trustees were appointed by the mayor and whose staff was in the civil service. Of the seven Carnegie Branches constructed in Queens, five remain and continue to operate.
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 Richmond Hill Branch has played this civic role in Richmond Hill for over a century.[i] Today the library’s extensive lawn is used for community celebrations and holiday events.[ii]
The building, designed by Tuthill & Higgins, architects in 1905, is situated on a triangular lot bordered by Hillside Avenue, Lefferts Boulevard, and the elevated tracks of the Long Island Railroad running along Babbage Street. Tuthill & Higgins designed the Astoria Branch as well. The building has several characteristics of the suburban Carnegie library type. Located in the less densely populated areas of the Bronx, Brooklyn, Staten Island and Queens, these branches are most often freestanding structures within a larger lot. Frequently, the libraries feature brick walls with limestone ornamentation. Typically built in a Classical Revival style, the buildings have a symmetrical layout, large windows to allow an abundance of light into the reading rooms, and a prominent, decorative entrance.
The Richmond Hill Branch continues to serve as a branch of the Queens Borough Public Library. Land for the site was purchased from William Man and Alrick N. Man ($12,000). Construction with equipment cost $32,659.20.[iii] At first, the library had a simple front lawn, and the building’s lot was not encircled by the present wrought iron and brick fences. Judging from an early postcard, there originally was an ornate stone fountain installed on the Hillside Avenue side. The structure had three Ionic columns that supported a curvilinear entablature with a decorative stone vessel. Today, flagstone paths lead from the streets to the entrances and flower borders are planted along the fence. In the 1990s, a new handicap access ramp with aluminum railing was installed in front of the main entry.[iv]
Originally, the branch consisted of a structure three bays wide and one bay deep that faced Hillside Avenue. An addition using the same tan brick walls and stone ornament was constructed in 1929, which significantly expanded the facility. This newer section, containing the Children’s Library, has an entrance on Lefferts Boulevard and an additional bay along Babbage Street. The historic tiled roof with ornate metal cresting was replaced with a standing seam metal roof in the 1960s. All doors and windows have been replaced. The interior has gone through several renovations. In 1985, new lit display shelves and a new circulation desk were installed. The ceiling has been lowered, and the floors have been replaced with asphalt tile. Very few historic interior details remain.[v]
William B. Tuthill of Tuthill & Higgins is most known for designing Carnegie Hall (1889-1891), built in the Renaissance Revival style with a Roman brick façade, the American Female Guardian Society (1901-2) in the West Bronx, the Morris and Laurette Schinasi House at 351 Riverside Drive (1907-09), and a group of row houses at 4-16 West 122nd Street (1888-9) in Harlem.[vi]
Construction and Layout:
The Richmond Hill Branch is prominently located within a triangular lot, which contains an extensive lawn and several fully grown trees. A simple wrought iron fence borders the lot along Hillside Avenue and Lefferts Boulevard, while a tan brick fence encloses the property along Babbage Street. Decorative, geometric brick and stone posts flank the gates in front of the main entry and children’s side entry. A series of new concrete steps and a non-historic handicap access ramp lead to the front doors. Another staircase leads from Lefferts Boulevard to the children’s entrance. The library consists of the original three bay wide Classical Revival building that faces Hillside Avenue, and a 1929 southern annex that is three bays long and one bay wide. The entire structure rests on a thick stone water table. The building is topped by a modern standing seam metal mansard roof.
The library’s walls are clad in saffron bricks laid in a running bond with a minimum of stone trim. The front (north) façade is three bays wide with a slightly projecting center entrance bay. Wide brick piers divide each bay. The main entryway consists of non-historic glass and aluminum double doors and a thin transom. The original transom was eventually filled with modern orange bricks. The doors are flanked by two brick piers with stone fluted Ionic columns and broken-off stone pilasters. The columns rest on historic stone piers. Each of the flanking tripartite windows contain historic mullions in the form of stone pilasters.
Crowning the windows and entrance bay is an Ionic architrave with fasciae and a plain brick frieze. Directly above the doors is a stone frieze with the engraved words “PUBLIC LIBRARY.” Topping the frieze is a stone cornice with dentils and an egg-and-dart band, above which is a plain brick parapet. The front façade’s entablature continues around the entire building.
The east façade, which faces Lefferts Boulevard, is four bays wide. The northern-most bay is part of the original 1905 structure, with the same window design as on the front. The east façade features a recessed bay that contains modern metal and glass doors with a decorative stone surround. A Doric/Neo-classical border forms the the lintel and posts of the doorway, above which is a frieze with the engraved word “CHILDREN.” Additional stone borders flank the doorframe. Two scrolled brackets flank the frieze and support a dentillated cornice. The two southern-most tripartite windows are nearly identical to those on the front façade. They feature thinner pilasters and thicker stone sills.
The south side of the 1929 addition features one slightly recessed bay, which contains a double window with a stone mullion and thick stone sill. The annex’s west façade contains windows with the same proportion and detail as those on the east façade.
Along Babbage Street, an additional bay was added to the original section’s rear, most likely in 1929. The segment’s south façade features one large tripartite window with stone pilasters closely modeled on those on the front, and four tall, thin windows. The façade that faces Babbage Street has two bays. The northern-most bay is part of the original 1905 library, while the southern-most bay was built at least two decades later.
The library’s interior contains a number of original features, which include column details, the mezzanine above the wooden book stacks, and an historic fireplace with brown and saffron bricks. The carved wooden Colonial Revival mantel is identical to the mantel in the Children’s Room at the Elmhurst Branch (1906). The brick surround is flanked by two thin Tuscan pilasters, which are topped by Ionic fasciae, a frieze with the Queens Borough Public Library seal (a central panel depicting a lit oil lamp, which most likely symbolizes the light of knowledge and learning), and a denticulated mantelpiece.
The highlight of the interior is the mural, The Story of Richmond Hill (1936-7) by Philip Evergood (1901-1975). Funded by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the colorful 160 square foot mural depicts the history of the neighborhood, which began as one of New York’s early working-class garden suburbs. The artwork then illustrates the hard lives of newly-arrived immigrants, who work hard to better their lives amid brick tenements. A factory and elevated subway can been seen in the upper right hand corner.[vii]
[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.)
[ii] Dierickx, The Architecture of Literacy, 199.
[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), 149.
[iv] Dierickx, 199.
[v] Dierickx, 199.
[vi] Norval White & Elliot Willensky, AIA Guide to New York City, 4th ed. (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2000), 268, 338, 498, 590.
[vii] Matthew Baigell, A Concise History of American Painting and Sculpture, revised edition (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996), 269.