Friday, February 11, 2022

The 1907 Epiphany Branch Library - 228 East 23rd Street

photo by the author

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 experienced 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.”

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.

The Evening Post reported on September 13, 1907, "The newest branch building erected for the New York Public Library out of the Carnegie fund will be opened at No. 228 East Twenty-third Street next Friday.  This is the twenty-fourth."  The article noted, "It will furnish quarters for the Epiphany Branch, formerly a part of the old Cathedral library system, which was consolidated with the New York Public Library in 1905."

While essentially following a similar design format, the Carnegie libraries were the products of several different architectural firms.  The Epiphany Branch was designed by the esteemed firm of Carrère and Hastings, whose magnificent Main Library building was rising on Fifth Avenue.   The firm created a near copy of another Carnegie branch, the Muhlenberg, which it had designed a year earlier at 209 West 23rd Street.

The 50-foot wide, limestone clad structure is three stories tall.  Its Renaissance Revival style design features arched openings within the base, countered by rectangular windows in the two-story upper section.  Bracketed cornices distinguish the second floor windows and a stone cornice and parapet complete the design.

from the collection of the New York Public Library

On the main floor were the circulation and reference rooms for adults.  The second floor contained the children's reading rooms and circulation desk, as well as a "retiring room" for the staff--what today we would call a lounge.  The top floor held the reading area for magazines and periodicals as well as exhibition cases.  The cost of construction was $85,000--about $2.4 million today.  (The site, paid for by the city, was another $71,845.)

Almost from its opening, the Epiphany Branch was the venue of free classes.  Among the earliest were Americanization classes.  Many, if not most, of the residents of the neighborhood were immigrant families.  With World War I raging, the "Americanization movement," which sought to meld the individual cultures into a single American ideal, swept the country.  

On October 28, 1917, an article in The New York Times Magazine, entitled "Making Good Citizens of the Foreign-Born," said, "The 'immigration problem' as a whole is a many-sided thing' but now that the United States is at war, a vigorous new interest has arisen in one phase of the problem, and a comprehensive new effort is being made to solve it--the problem of real Americanization."  It noted that a course was already being given at the Epiphany Branch:

This course begins with an opening series of lectures, of which the purpose is to acquaint the worker with the conditions, general and specific, of immigration and the immigrant's life.  Then follow field work and observation; the student learns at first hand the relation of the Government to the individual immigrant.  The third phase makes it necessary for each volunteer to decide upon some specialized form of work, in health, food conservation and domestic economy, vocational guidance, recreation, community singing, and co-operative art.

The library offered its rooms as meeting spaces, as well.  On November 25, 1917 the Consumers' Co-operative Society met here regarding the "co-operative store plan."  Based on a socialistic concept, cooperative stores did away with the middle man.  Members of the cooperative could buy goods without the cost of the retailer, paying a nominal membership fee to support the store. 

Around 1926, a series of "teacher clerk training courses" were begun here.  "This course aims to prepare those who can meet eligibility requirements for the position of teacher clerk.  It covers every phase of the clerk's work," explained The Daily Star on September 15 that year.

It may have been those courses that caused the Epiphany Branch to become a favorite meeting place of educators--especially after the Stock Market crash of 1929.  Teachers and substitute teachers became "unappointed," or laid off.  In response, by 1931, The New York Association of Unappointed Teachers was formed.  It regularly met here over the next few years.

Another group that met in the Epiphany Branch--one with a name that would be questioned today--was the New York City Teachers of Homebound Crippled Children.  It, too, held regularly scheduled meetings here throughout the 1930's.

A specific program for juvenile offenders opened in the library on September 18, 1941.  The New York Sun reported, "A special collection of books, set up especially for the use of children between the ages of 5 and 18, who come before the courts, was opened yesterday in the Epiphany branch of the New York Public Library."  The city had received an anonymous give of $5,000 to buy the books, chosen by the Mayor's Committee for the Selection of Suitable Books for Children in the Courts.  City and court officials promised they would "curb juvenile crime."  How successful the program was is unclear.

An interesting course given here in the 1940's offered free lessons in Esperanto.  A constructed international auxiliary language developed in 1887, Esperanto was intended to be a universal second language for international communication.

In 1960 plans for restoring the stately library building were drafted, but then, according to The New York Times, "the city decided it would be better to start all over with a simple modern building."  Restoration architect Joseph Roberto later said, "Those were the days when everything was torn down."  In 1973 the city issued a demolition permit--and then an enraged community rose up.

On July 8, 1973 The New York Times architectural columnist Ada Louise Huxtable wrote that the library "has been given a last minute reprieve just as demolition contracts were to be let by the city.  A replacement, of no greater area, was to be built."  She noted that, ironically, the firm of Lundquist & Stonehill had written in 1971, "We observed that the existing building was distinguished and substantial" and "thought that consideration should be given to renovation and expansion."  The Department of Public Works had responded that the "die was cast" and the firm was fired.  Huxtable said "The Department is now eating Carrère and Hastings crow."

Joseph Roberto had been greatly responsible in the structure's rescue.  The building was closed in 1982, and the restoration/renovation was completed in 1984.  Roberto cut the yellow ribbon at the building's rededication on September 25.  Noticeably, the doorway was transformed into window that seamlessly-matches the others, and the entrance moved to a glass enclosed atrium to the side.

photo by Mcmillin24

The branch continues to provide children's programs and exhibitions within a Carrère & Hastings structure rescued at the last minute from the scrap heap.

no permission to reuse the content of this blog has been granted to


  1. 'New York Times architectural columnist Louis Huxtable...' Ada Louise Huxtable, please! Interesting otherwise, thanks.

  2. It's a beautiful building. I'm glad it was spared.

    But I have to take exception with your description cooperatives as a socialist concept. In the United States many cooperatives have been formed by its owner/users to achieve economies of scale and/or provide services that would ordinarily be unavailable. For example: rural electric cooperatives were formed because corporate electric providers would not fund the cost of establishing electricity to those areas. The Farm Credit System provides reliable on-going funding to all aspects of agriculture because commercial banks have a history of jumping in during good times and bailing on agriculture when times get tough. Credit Unions are cooperatives, and any financial advisor should tell you credit unions give better service to their owner depositors/borrowers than big commercial banks, unless you're a multimillionaire. And I bet the coop grocery store that formed in this building in 1917 was as a result of either there not being a grocery store in this area or it did not provide the goods people wanted at a reasonable price. It was not just because cooperatives want to cut out the middleman.

    1. Everything you've described is a form of socialism. But I understand and appreciate your points.

    2. So people who form privately owned companies for their own benefit are socialists?

  3. Judging from the photo I did not know a streetcar/interurban ran on 23rd St.