Monday, July 11, 2011

The 1902 Yorkville Library -- 222-224 East 79th Street

photo by Alice Lum

In 1902 the Director of the New York Public Library related to the crowd assembled for the dedication of the Yorkville Library a story Andrew Carnegie had told to him years before. Carnegie had reminisced about the problems he experience as a boy trying to obtain books to read.

Billings said that the little boy and future millionaire made a vow “no, perhaps not a vow; it seems unnatural to accuse a Scotchman of a vow—but a promise—that if he ever obtained the means he would establish a public library.”

By the turn of the century Andrew Carnegie not only had the means to establish a library, but scores of them. The philanthropic multimillionaire, who had been born in the attic of a tiny house in Dunfermline, Scotland, gave tens of millions of dollars away; distributing his wealth so other impoverished boys would have an easier time.

On March 12, 1901, Carnegie offered the City of New York a gift of $5.2 million to build free circulating libraries. The condition was that the City would provide the land and maintain the libraries. An agreement was reached and the plans for fifty libraries—thirty of them in Manhattan—began.

Three architectural firms were chosen for the project, among them James Brown Lord who had earlier designed the Free Circulating Library’s Bloomingdale Branch.

Lord was given the commission to design the Yorkville Library at 222-224 East 79th Street. He produced a three-story structure of Indiana limestone over a basement. A fourth story on the roof, invisible from the street, was for the janitor’s use. The 40 by 90 foot building, with equipment, cost Carnegie $70,000.
photo by Alice Lum
The Yorkville Library was the first of the Carnegie buildings to be completed, opening on December 13, 1902. The New York Times commented that “The interior especially is remarkably well ventilated and illumined.”

Lord was somewhat restricted by the Advisory Board of Architects which was appointed by the Board of Trustees, as required by the provisions of Carnegie’s gift. The Board required “conformity with the general type” of architecture it adapted. As a result subsequent libraries would be noticeably similar such as Carrere & Hastings’ building at 190 Amsterdam Avenue, and McKim, Mead & White’s East Broadway library.

Snarling lion keystones surmounted each of the arched street level openings -- photo by Alice Lum
Lord’s design, however, would stand out. He drew on the elegant Palladian style creating a classic, ordered fa├žade. Three large arched openings at the rusticated street level were surmounted by carved stone lion’s heads in the keystones. Above, tall pedimented windows behind stone balustrades are separated by Ionic columns. Rich carved garlands drape from either side of classic stone faces over three smaller windows. Above the prominent cornice a limestone balustrade, reflecting the smaller versions at the second floor, finished the design.
Victorian brownstones still surrounded the library several years after completion -- photo NYPL Collection
Although around 300 people attended the dedication ceremonies, two were noticeably absent. James Brown Lord did not live to see the building’s completion, and Andrew Carnegie “was forbidden by his physician to assist at this partial realization of his big scheme,” according to The Times.

The design, especially at street level, was similar to the elegant mansions of the area -- photo by Alice Lum

The Yorkville Library became an integral part of the neighborhood. The Yorkville Neighborhood Associate, formed “for the betterment of social conditions in the neighborhood,” met here during the World War I years, as did the German Association for Culture.

The German Association installed a permanent exhibition of art in the library’s meeting hall and held temporary exhibitions for years. Other art exhibitions, such as the handicraft work of the Trade School of the Hospital of Hope for the Crippled and Injured in 1914, were routinely promoted.
Elaborate carved garlands spill over the windows beneath the cornice (the artificial owls are not original to Lord's plan!) -- photo by Alice Lum
In May of 1916 the street in front of the library was converted to “a street scene in the outskirts of Stratford Town, in the year 1610” when elementary school children launched a Shakespearean festival. The pupils from Public School No. 53, ranging from kindergarten to eighth grade, put on a play and performed the “traditional dances and Spring merry-making back in the days of the early seventeenth century,” according to newspapers.

It was in the Yorkville Library that Thomas Masaryk conducted his research that eventually led to the formation of the Czech Republic in October 1918.

The library was closed for a few weeks in 1960 for the first time for “major repairs.” Two decades later extensive interior renovations were conducted in 1986 through 1987.

In designating the Yorkville Library a New York City landmark, the Landmarks Preservation Commission called it “one of New York’s most elegant adaptations of the Palladian style to a modern public building and one of the few examples of this phase of Italian Renaissance architecture in New York.” The dignified library is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.


  1. I use this library all the time and you can see where, inside the building, it had once been really beautiful. The outside is ok now, but probably not as nice as it used to be. Thanks for the interesting history about this library branch.

  2. I had hoped to fine some vintage shots of the interior, but no luck. Unfortunately, the interiors most often go neglected and abused.

  3. The Yorkville Library is certainly a beautiful building, however, we never knew the full history behind its existence. Carnegie's contributions, particularly in New York City, were great. It's a shame that he was unable to attend the opening after his sizable investment.

  4. its amazing how long some of these structures have been in place..