print by G. Moore from the collection of the New-York Historical Society
The New York Society Library was formed in 1754, occupying rooms in City Hall (later Federal Hall). Its members erected the first permanent structure at 33 Nassau Street in 1795, where it remained for just over four decades. Then, according to Ezekiel Porter Belden in his 1850 New-York, Past, Present and Future, "the crowding demands of commerce drove it further from her domains." In 1838, land was purchased at the southeast corner of Broadway and Leonard Street and two years later the library's magnificent new home was completed.
The New York Society Library had chosen a young, British-born architect newly arrived in New York. Frederick Diaper was 29 years old in 1839 and this was his first major commission. The risk paid off. Diaper's striking brownstone structure exuded taste and refinement. A classic Greek temple sat upon a one-story rusticated base. Double-height fluted columns supported the crisp triangular pediment. Soaring openings flooded the second floor with natural light. The building cost the New York Society Library, including land and furnishings, $118,000--about $3.82 million in 2023.
Ezekiel Porter Belden described it saying:
This building, 100 feet long, by 60 wide, is constructed of finely-cut brown sand stone, and presents on Broadway a chaste facade of Ionic columns. On passing the structure, the eye is arrested by its bold and massive front, while the beauty of its proportions, and its highly finished masonry, elicit the approbation of good taste and critical observation.
At the front of the ground floor were "two handsome rooms," according to the New York Herald, behind which were "a neat and commodious theatre, or lecture room" capable of seating 500 people. The second, or "principal floor" held the library and reading rooms which the New York Herald said, "consist of two large halls and two smaller apartments for study and conversation." Ruggle's Picture of New York in 1846, a guidebook, called the interiors "unsurpassed for architectural beauty by any in the United States."
By now the New York Society Library had merged with the New York Athenaeum. When it moved into its new home, the New York Society Library boasted a collection of about 40,000 volumes. The New York Herald opined that the library "having been selected with care, and purchased at a great expense, (very few donations having ever been obtained) will undoubtedly be found, at least, equal in value to any library in America."
Members paid $25 membership fee and annual dues of $6. (The dues would be equal to about $195 today.) The library garnered income by leasing space to two tenants.
The National Academy of Design occupied the top floor, the New York Herald saying on January 5, 1847, the academy "are enabled by their central and conspicuous accommodations, to promote their objects with great success."
The Universal Exchange Lyceum also rented space. An announcement in The Evening Post on February 1, 1842 explained:
The members at their own option, and in their own way, form 'Society Lyceums' of from 6 to 10, or 15 ladies and gentlemen, who hold weekly meetings for reading, conversation, preparing specimens for 'Exchanges,' and various other exercises, as they may be selected...The general Depository of the Lyceum is at 358 Broadway, corner of Leonard street, N.Y., in the building of the N. Y. Society Library, probably the best location and room for the object, to be found in the city or country.
Additional income came from the meeting room. On January 18, 1842, for instance, the New York Herald reported on "Mr. [Joseph] Braham's Farewell Concert" and noted, "To-night the Monarch of English song, gives his farewell concert...By a reference to the programme, it will be seen amid a galaxy of other entertainments, the magnificent Brigand song from Fra Diavolo is to be given." The article cautioned potential audience members, "The concert is given at the New York Society Library, and we advise those to go early who desire good seats."
The library trustees were open-minded enough that sometimes controversial subjects were occasionally the subjects of lectures. In the winter of 1844 Rev. Dr. Henry Ward Beecher delivered a sermon on the evils of the theater. In response, Thomas Barry, the stage manager of the Park Theatre gave a lecture here on February 22 titled "The Uses and Abuses of the Stage and a Reply to the Attacks of the Rev. Dr. Beecher." In advertising his lecture, Barry announced, "Had the great code of Christianity presented any thing in opposition to the Histrionic Act, I should not have had the temerity to proceed with my present undertaking."
The New York Society Library handled the problem of purloined volumes by shaming the borrower. On August 7, 1845, for instance, an announcement in the New York Herald noted that the London Journal of Arts and Sciences, Vol. XVIII was missing. "The individual who took this book from the New York Society Library, is requested to return it." Also missing was the third volume of Hallam's Introduction t0 the Literature of Europe. The notice said "Both these volumes are marked with the library stamp, in printers' red ink, thus--'The property of the New York Society Library'" and warned, "Other missing books will be advertised, unless returned soon."
Only thirteen years after moving into its handsome home the library was on the move again. In 1853 three plots were purchased on University Avenue (later University Place, between 12th and 13th Street, and in March 1854 the trustees approved the plans of T. Thomas & Son, architects, for a new structure at 109 University Place.
The New York Herald was not pleased with the choice of sites. Pointing out on June 23, 1854 that the Astor Library, the Mercantile Library, the Cooper Union, and the American Bible Society had all moved in the vicinity of Astor Place, it wrote, "It only remained for the New York Society Library and the Historical Society to obtain sites for the buildings which they propose to erect for their large and valuable libraries, in or near Astor place, to carry out the hopes and expectations of the friends of literature generally." Instead, both had "purchased sites wide apart from the location referred to."
At the time of the article, although its new building would not be completed until 1856, the New York Society Library had already moved out of its Broadway home. On January 9, 1854 a "Notice of Removal" had appeared in the New-York Daily Tribune, informing the "friends of customers" of D. Appleton & Co., publishers, that "they will remove on Wednesday, January 11, from No. 290 Broadway at which place they have been established more than twenty years to their new and extensive promises, Nos. 346 and 348 Broadway, corner of Leonard-st. (formerly the Society Library building).
D. Appleton & Co. installed shops on the ground floor. Report of Executive Committee of The New-York Historical Society, 1916 (copyright expired)
Daniel Appleton had begun business with a bookstore on Exchange Place in 1825. The firm had moved several times, and by the time it purchased the former library building, it was one of the most successful publishers in the country. It produced academic and religious books and tracts, stereopticon slides, pamphlets and cabinet photographs. In addition to selling its own publications, D. Appleton & Co. imported books. On December 24, 1855, the New-York Tribune said, "A large and select assortment of first-class Publications, handsomely illustrated and bound in superb styles, may be obtained at this store. In addition to their own issues, such books as Gems of British Art...a host of other splendid Gift-Books, and the best editions of standard authors, [are] always on hand."
As the New York Society Library had done, D. Appleton & Co. leased unneeded space in the building. In 1856, W. H. Willson advertised The New Eyelet Machine, a "hand-sewing machine" for "tailors, dressmakers and families." The ad listed the shop's location as "Appleton's Building, No. 348 Broadway."
D. Appleton & Co. would have to move once again when fire destroyed the grand Greek Revival building in 1867. On June 2, 1868, The Sun reported, "Messrs. [Griffith] Thomas & Son, architects, are now engaged, for the New York Life Insurance Company, on what gives promise of being one of the finest and most costly buildings on Broadway. The site is that of the old Society Library building, which was altered and used for mercantile purposes, and finally destroyed by fire."
And, indeed, Thomas & Son's replacement structure, completed in 1870, was fine and costly. But it would not last. It was demolished in 1894 to be replaced by the the New York Life Insurance Company Building that survives.
many thanks to historian Anthony Bellov for prompting this post.
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