In 2020 the Historic Districts Council was successful in creating a thematic State and National Register Historic District for all the Carnegie Libraries in New York City. This is important not only because of the historical research but because it provides a variety of incentives for the libraries: they ware now eligible for special funding of capital needs, demolitions or serious alterations will be prevented, and any appropriate alterations, renovations or restorations will have the added benefit of guidance from the New York State Office of Historic Preservation. HDC was awarded a New York State Historic Preservation Excellence in Historic Documentation Award by Andrew Cuomo as a result of this effort.
The Carnegie libraries are one of New York City’s most remarkable historic collections of historic resources. Recognizing their importance to so many of NYC’s historic neighborhoods, HDC has been working on this project since 2007. Libraries serve as a local connection to history and community development throughout the 5 boroughs. These buildings are often the most architecturally distinguished buildings in their neighborhoods but more importantly, they help solidify communities. It is not unwarranted to say that libraries are the secular equivalents to churches and religious institutions, they are truly landmarks in the most essential sense, one defines the land by it. You live a block away from the library; the bus stop is in front of the library; “I’ll meet you in the library”.
In addition to their physical presence, the libraries granted by the Carnegie grant are a stunning example of private investment in the public good. While there’s little need to encourage the great, white man theory of history, when it happens it should be recognized and examined within its own context. Carnegie wrote quite a bit about why he chose to spend his money the way he did based on his own life experiences as an ambitious immigrant in a new country. He believed in uplifting individuals through access to free education and learning. It was, in a word, a social engineering strategy but what a strategy! He provided the physical vessels for these activities to occur and in that respect, he was successful.
The Carnegie libraries became a home away from home for literally countless New Yorkers of all ages, from children seeking a safe place to study, to socialize or just “be” to students looking to learn and maybe even increase the greater sum of human knowledge to people needing a quiet place to think, read and work in a busy, chaotic city.
HDC would to give huge thanks to consultants Chris Brazee and Suzanne Spellen for their work, all our private funders and our colleagues – The Committee to Save the New York Public Library for their incredibly generous support and the SHPO staff, especially Jennifer Betsworth, Kath LeFrak and Dan McEnaney whose help and guidance was invaluable in finally bringing this project to completion.