Photo NYPL Collection
When John Jacob Astor died in 1848, he was the wealthiest man in America. In his will he left the astonishing amount of $400,000 for the establishment of a public library. A year later the Astor Library was opened and in 1854 its permanent building was erected by his son William Backhouse Astor.
Astor’s will had been explicit about the location of the library. It was to sit on Lafayette Place, directly across the street from the elegant LaGrange Terrace in the most fashionable residential section of New York. Here Astor's son, William Backhouse Astor, commissioned German-born architect Alexander Saeltzer to design the new building. Saeltzer used the style prevalent in Germany for civic buildings at the time, the Rundbogenstil style; sometimes called German Neo-Romanesque. The first floor of rusticated brownstone formed a solid base for the two red brick stories above, accentuated with brownstone trim and graceful arched windows.
Four years later, Astor brought in Griffith Thomas to add a northern extension (what is today the center portion) and in 1881, he commissioned Thomas Stent to enlarge it further to the north. Both architects so seamlessly matched the original plan that the additions are undetectable.
The remarkable library became a destination spot for both foreign and domestic visitors. It was closed for a private tour for the Prince of Wales. Don Pedro of Brazil visited as well as four presidents, Van Buren, Fillmore, Pierce and Buchanan. On the eve of his inauguration as Vice President, Chester A. Arthur came “in order to familiarize himself with the details of previous inaugural ceremonies, being inspired by a gentlemen’s instinctive desire to act well his part,” according to the New York Times. General Winfield Scott, Horace Greeley, Thackeray and Louisa May Alcott all read here.
In 1892 the library boasted 245,329 volumes and served 53,459 visitors in the reading room. In March of 1895 The Times referred to the library as “a working library for serious persons. It has no circulating department. The bulk of its 50,000 readers are reference seekers and its books are, as a rule, works of general reference, technical and linguistic.”
Like the neighborhood, that was all about to change. In 1898 the consolidation of the Astor and Lennox libraries was planned, which would result in the grand Beaux Arts Public Library on Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street. On September 15 of that year The Times wrote “When the Astor Library first opened its doors Lafayette Place was a street of very beautiful residences. Now, replacing the stanch masonry of the old mansions, there are warehouses of skeleton steel wrapped about with walls of brick. The books find themselves to-day in the heart of the clothing trade, and only the Cooper Union and Grace Church remain to keep the library company overnight, when the grandsons and granddaughters of its former neighbors are dancing miles away up town.”
The building was put up for sale that year, which caused a Times writer to become nostalgic. “The sale of the old building, which will probably be replaced by a loft, will remove one more landmark from Lafayette Place, or Lafayette Street, as it is called to-day. Only two years ago the block of houses called LaGrange Terrace or Colonnade Row, opposite the Astor Library, began to disappear, and only a few of them now remain.” The loft he anticipated, however, was never to come.
The building was not sold until January 12, 1920 when the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society bought it for $325,000 as its headquarters and receiving station, dormitory, and synagogue for arriving Jewish immigrants. A year later, on June 6, 1921, the renovations were complete and dedication ceremonies were held. 5,000 men and women crowded around the old library and 800 managed to get into the auditorium for the event. President Harding sent a congratulatory telegraph.
In order to create the necessary accomodations, the Society’s architect, Benjamin Levitan, installed floors across the former double-height central spaces and demolished the ornate iron and wood bookshelves. Nevertheless, many of the irreplaceable Victorian elements were preserved.
The Society owned the building until 1965 by which time it was neglected and unmaintained. Sold to a developer, it was slated for demolition. The Landmarks Preservation Commission, however, had other plans. In its first major successful rescue, it arranged the $560,000 sale of the historic property to the New York Shakespeare Festival, headed by producer Joseph Papp. Saved at the eleventh-hour, architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable termed it “the miracle on Lafayette Street.”
Papp commissioned architect Giorgio Cavaglieri to convert the structure into the Public Theatre. Cavaglieri had been recycling historic buildings since 1955 and had recently worked on the Jefferson Market Courthouse in Greenwich Village. The architect converted the two-tier sky lit atrium – the former main reading room – into a 300-seat auditorium. The entrance and lobby were preserved with its original colonnade. The Theatre, which focuses on showcasing new performers and playwrights, debuted in 1967 with the world-premiere of the musical Hair.
By 2002 $12 million had been spent on refurbishing and renovating the space – creating a mezzanine level for additional dressing rooms, reconstruction of the lower, old north hall, level, and further outfitting the seven theatres housed there.
In 2010 a $35 million renovation was planned, headed by Polshek Partnership Architects, to expand and refurbish the lobby, add an exterior entrance staircase and a glass covered canopy, completely restore the façade, incorporate of energy-efficient technologies and improve interior visibility.