Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The 1903 Chatham Square Library Building - 31 East Broadway

photo NYPL Collection
When Andrew Carnegie gave his gift of $5.2 million to the City of New York in 1901 to build public libraries, the Chatham Square library was situated in rented rooms at 22 East Broadway. A year later the city purchased a brick building across the street at 31 East Broadway for $63,000 as the site for the new library.

The new building, designed by McKim, Mead and White, opened in November 1903. The second library completed under Carnegie’s endowment, it was a stately limestone structure three stories high, but designed in two sections giving the impression of a two-story building. Above the cornice was a carved shield with an open book, hung with a garland of leaves,

Upon its completion The Times called it “a beautiful white stone building, which rises in marked contrast to the buildings which surround it. While there are three full stories, it has the air of but two, the front showing three large arched windows, and above is a colonnade of six columns reaching to the cornice.”

At the opening ceremonies, Arthur E. Bostick, Chairman of the Circulating Department of the New York Public Library made specific mention that there was little fiction to be found in this library and that there were twice as many books on science than in any other library in the city.

He elaborated on the reading tastes of the local residents, mostly Italians and Jews, saying that “unlike the people in the wealthier parts of the city, the population here rejects fiction to a large extent and chooses solid information on science and other serious subjects.”

A teacher helps her class on a visit to the Chatham Square Library - photo NYPL Collection
 The children’s reading room was on the first floor where children of the nearby tenements could work on lessons and read away from the cramped conditions of home. Plaster casts of classic sculpture decorated the room, donated by Susan Travers. The second floor housed the adult reading room and the newspaper and magazine room was on the third.

As more and more Chinese immigrants settled in the Chatham Square neighborhood the need for a Chinese-language library became evident. In March 1908, an new organization calling itself the Chinese Literary Club met in a room in the library to discuss the matter. Three years later the Chatham Square Library put 300 Chinese language books into circulation, creating New York’s first Chinese library.

The second floor information desk - NYPL Collection
The rich ethnic mix of library users prompted The Times in 1913 to draw a comparison of the Chatham branch to a more sedate branch. “As soon as you enter the room the salient difference between the Chatham Square district and its neighbor, Seward Park, will strike your ear…There is a strong, vital undercurrent to the voices. The place is filled with excited and spasmodic little movements only half subdued by the librarians.

“All the chatter is in a high treble. There is a vitality and exuberance and, correspondingly, impatience. The children here are from the Italian quarters and from Chinatown. There is no brooding in the faces – only zest and excited curiosity.”

A century later when paper books are quickly being replaced by electronic technology, the Chatham Square Library remains an important and well-used facility. According to the New York Public Library, it “acts as a cultural and civic center for a community of avid readers and is one of the busiest libraries in New York City.” The beautiful and refined structure was designated a New York City landmark in 2001.

1 comment:

  1. This was my childhood library and I always loved it. Glad to see something of the real NYC remains.