Proposal To Save Elmhurst's Carnegie Library

A letter to the Queens Library from Michael Perlman, a member of the Queens Preservation Council, and Chairman of Rego-Forest Preservation Council.

Dear Mr. Van Bramer:

My name is Michael Perlman, and I am a member of the Queens Preservation Council, and Chairman of Rego-Forest Preservation Council. As you may recall, we met last spring at the Newtown Civic Association meeting, where Elmhurst enthusiast & resident Kim Kindya presented on behalf of Queens Preservation Council, and you presented with Peter Magnani on behalf of the Queens Library, in regard to the Elmhurst Carnegie Library branch. You stated that you are seeking dialogue from the community and preservationists, and if enough people oppose the proposed demolition, you would be open to possibilities along the lines of historic preservation which highlight the much-needed expansion. I would like to voice my concerns in writing, and make a proposal that would perhaps better suit the community. I am writing on behalf of my preservation pursuits, and as an individual who considers the branch home.

An overwhelming majority of attendees at the Newtown Civic meeting were alarmed by the Queens Library’s proposal. In the months following the meeting, I learned that numerous Elmhurst residents echo those sentiments while conversing with them. The same holds true for prominent citywide preservation organizations, which include the Historic Districts Council, NY Landmarks Conservancy, Society for Preservation of LI Antiquities (SPLIA), Queens Historical Society, amongst others.

Simeon Bankoff, Executive Director of the Historic Districts Council, stated “HDC supports the preservation of all existing Carnegie Library branches.” On July 11, 2007, Jeffrey Kroessler delivered a speech on behalf of HDC, regarding the legacy of the Carnegie Library and remnants in the boroughs, to further the preservation ethic. It was well-received.

Jeffrey Kroessler’s book, Lighting the Way: A Centennial History of the Queens Borough Public Library, 1896-1996, was published in honor of the 100th anniversary in 1996. In August 2007, he composed a brilliant op-ed piece which shouldn’t have come to that reality. It is “Losing Our Way,” which can be accessed as follows: The Architecture of Literacy: The Carnegie Libraries of New York City was written by Mary B. Dierickx in 1996. It was a joint project, sponsored by Mayor Giuliani’s office, NYC’s Depts. of General Services & Design and Construction, the 3 branch libraries, & Cooper Union. If the city proceeded with the demolition of the Elmhurst Library, it would pose a great contradiction.

The QBPL erected 7 libraries with funding from the Carnegie Foundation, which included the Astoria, Flushing, Elmhurst, Far Rockaway, Poppenhusen, Richmond Hill, and Woodhaven institutions. At present, the Far Rockaway and Flushing branches have met the wrecking ball, and the Astoria branch is gone in retrospect, since its facade has been obscured by a later addition. The Elmhurst Carnegie Library opened March 31, 1906 as a three-bay Georgian Revival, and was designed by the notable architectural firm of Lord & Hewlett. The firm also designed the Far Rockaway and Flushing Carnegie branches, but given their fate, this leaves the Elmhurst branch as the only Lord & Hewlett building extant in Queens.

The Elmhurst Library’s façade alterations are mimimal but reversible, and passerby sense its distinctive presence on Broadway, which is complemented by an award-winning “community” garden with mature trees. There are alternatives to expand the book collection without making a sacrifice. Millions in funding are being allocated by our councilmembers and city agencies for development and redevelopment projects citywide, but why not spend it here to preserve this rare gem?

I must say that the proposed replacements are hideous, out of context, and does indeed resemble “stark glass ice cubes,” according to a local resident who wishes to remain anonymous. If built, it would drastically alter the historic fabric of a section in Elmhurst where there’s a higher concentration of such buildings (e.g. the landmarked Dutch Reformed Church, St. James Episcopal Church on National Register, etc). The Elmhurst Library is one of few remaining unofficial landmarks left in Elmhurst when faced with the rampant and tasteless development in the neighborhood, and much of Queens for that matter. I feel it’s lame that the QBPL states it wouldn’t be worthy to spend 1.5 million to restore the façade in the least, while knowing they are budgeting $22 million to build a replacement. I also feel it would be greener to maintain the original building on the basis of its embodied energy throughout its life, rather than demolishing it to start anew. Two preservation-friendly proposals are as follows:

  • It would be most ideal to build an annex for the existing Carnegie branch. QBPL may survey nearby non-historic sites for a much-needed annex.
  • Another alternative is one in which preservation and development can co-exist, by designing a sensitive expansion while restoring the existing building, but I am leaning towards the first. It is noteworthy how the Poppenhusen branch’s façade was restored in recent years, while renovating and adaptively reusing the interior.

Peg Breen, President of The NY Landmarks Conservancy, stated “The fruits of the Carnegie gift are one of the great architectural, cultural, and intellectual ornaments of New York City. It is not enough to save some – we must try to save them all.” The NY Landmarks Conservancy is one organization that may be able to provide financial and technical assistance, based on prior correspondences.

This one-of-a-kind Carnegie branch is not owned by a private developer, but by the Queens Borough Public Library in which the public maintains faith, whether it be via management or institution itself. It is imperative to work with the general public, and continue to establish the “community within the community,” so we can all continue to open up our minds to “the ivory pillars of learning.” I kindly request that you consider our proposals to prevent its demise, and commemorate a significant 100+ year-old noble institution, so may future generations continue to cherish it. Various parties wish to meet with you and CM Helen Sears at a mutually convenient time. Thank you for your time!

Michael Perlman

Cc: Thomas Galante
Queens Preservation Council members: Chair Mitchell Grubler, Kim Kindya, Jim Trent
Rego-Forest Preservation Council
NY Landmarks Conservancy: Pres. Peg Breen, Spokesman Roger Lang
Historic Districts Council: Pres. Paul Graziano, Exec. Dir. Simeon Bankoff, Preservation consultants
SPLIA: Dir. Alexandra Parsons Wolfe
Queens Historical Society: Pres. Jim Driscoll
Central Queens Historical Association: Pres. Jeff Gottlieb
Dr. Jeffrey Kroessler
Councilmember Helen Sears
Assemblymember Margaret Markey
Rep. Joseph Crowley
Newtown Civic Association: Robert Valdes

Posted Under: Elmhurst, Public Building, Queens

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