photo by Beyond My Ken
As a boy in Scotland, Andrew Carnegie found it difficult to find books to read. In 1902 John Shaw Billings, the Director of the New York Public Library, recalled that the future millionaire had 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.”
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—were began.
In the summer of 1904 the firm of Carrère & Hastings began work on plans for a two-story brick Carnegie library at 68 Leroy Street. (The firm was responsible for the masterful marble New York Public Library still rising on Fifth Avenue.) Construction began in October, the cost of which would be $75,000--or about $2.2 million in today's money. The site cost the city $44,000--another $1 million today.
image from "Real Estate Owned By The City of New York Used For Public Libraries," 1908 (copyright expired)
The site was adjacent to Hudson Park, a recreational playground opened in 1903 which, ironically, replaced the elegant St. James' Park designed by Carrère & Hastings in 1896. The library would be known as the Hudson Park Branch.
The formal opening took place on January 24, 1906. The Sun reported that it "includes an auditorium besides well lighted reading rooms for children and their elders." Neighbors had been filing in for a week to get their library cards to access the 10,000 volumes on the shelves.
The library was festooned with bunting and flags for the opening. from the collection of the New York Public Library
Libraries served the local communities for a variety of purposes, including lecture spaces. In November 1907 Kellogg Durland spoke about his recent "experiences and observations" while traveling throughout Russia. It was a time of upheaval in what the New-York Tribune called "the disturbed country," with revolutionaries determined to overthrow the tsar. A Settlement worker, Durland's disposition was clearly on the side of the proletariat. Predicting "the final success of the revolutionary movement," he condemned Nicholas II for having "no intention of giving the people a constitutional government."
The Greenwich Village neighborhood was home to a significant immigrant population and the library was an important resource. In its 1911 annual report the New York Public Library reported that local boys had formed the Greenwich Village Literary Club here. "This is a self-governing club. The boys arrange their own programmes and usually invite the club adviser to contribute a story."
That year an exhibit of a "collection of books covering the school problems of the neighborhood, questions of congestion, foreign population, and sanitary conditions in the homes and in the schools," was staged.
The building also served as the meeting place of the Societa di Mutuo Beneficio fra le Donne Italiane" (the Mutual Benefit Society of Italian Women). According to the Library report, the group's February 3, 1911 meeting "was for social purposes, and the program for the evening provided recitations in Italian, music, and dancing."
In 1914 the report noted, "That the Library is becoming a social center for the mothers also is shown by at least two gatherings that occurred during [February]." Dr. Isabelle Barbour had given an illustrated talk on Europe to the Mothers' Club, and on February 27 35 mothers of kindergarten children were entertained. "Italian songs were sung by one of the kindergarten teachers and an Italian story told by Miss Blumer of the probation class."
The popularity of the branch necessitated its being enlarged in 1920. The building was extended to the east, with a second entrance on Seventh Avenue South.
Among the staff was Marianne Craig Moore, who started as a library assistant in 1921. Her first book of poetry (published without her permission) was released that year. Moore lived in the neighborhood, which was not only one of immigrants, but of artists, musicians and writers like herself. She worked here until 1925, going on to become one of America's most esteemed poets.
Branches like this one were as much as neighborhood social and educational center as a repository for books. At various times during 1924, for instance, it was the venue for exhibitions of "paintings by A. C. Wagler, drawings and water colors by Edward Hodges, needlework by Italian women of the neighborhood, and puppets and material on puppets, and miniature stages of many countries."
The passage of decades did not dilute the branch's outreach. In January 1964 a series of five exhibits entitled "Photography Sampler 1964" opened, and on November 5 that year The New York Times reported, "A free puppet show, 'Dragon John,' will be given tomorrow at 4 P. M. at the New York Public Library's Hudson Park Branch."
By 1983 the New York Public Library Early Childhood Resource and Information Center was housed in the building. On November 4 that year the Daily News explained, "The center is designed to serve the needs of children and parents as well as those who work or study in the fields of child development. Through workshops, book and the family room, the center provides a natural learning environment that fosters the basic education concept of the parent as the children's first teacher."
Carrère & Hastings' handsome brick library continues to serve its immediate community with exhibitions, events, and, of course, books.