Wednesday, September 6, 2023

The 1932 Mercantile Library - 17 East 47th Street


A For Sale sign hangs on the facade in 2023.

In the 1880s, Cornelius Vanderbilt DeForest and his wife Catherine lived in the high-stooped brownstone at 17 East 47th Street.  They were followed in the house by Jordan L. Mott and his wife, the former Katherine Jerome Purdy, and then by J. Hopkins Smith, Jr. and his wife, Pauline Morton.  The Smiths had been married in 1906, after having met at the White House.  Pauline's father was Paul Morton, Secretary of the Navy.

At the time of the Smiths' wedding, the Mercantile Library was located in Clinton Hall (the former Astor Place Opera House) at 13 Astor Place.   The venerable institution had opened in February 1821 at 49 Fulton Street and moved into the Astor Street building in 1854.  It was established as a reading room and library for young clerks, just beginning their business careers.  By the time of the Astor Place move, it boasted a library of 120,000 volumes.

In 1915 J. Hopkins Smith, Jr. had the East 47th Street residence renovated for business purposes, and in 1932 sold it to the Mercantile Library as the site of its new home.  The trustees  demolished the old brownstone and hired architect Henry Otis Chapman to design its replacement.

Completed before the end of the year, the eight story, neo-Renaissance style structure was clad in white marble.  The New York Times said it "shows a simple classic tendency, in keeping with the purposes for which it will be used."  

Two Renaissance style doorways with broken pediments and urns flanked a double-height window.  Between the second and third floors, the library's name was engraved into the marble, flanked by two large rosettes.  A row of elaborately carved rosettes and pendants ran below the third floor cornice.  The mid-section featured four-story fluted piers, rosettes, and wreaths.  Below the delicate terminal cornice was a border of intricately carved ribbons and swags.  

On September 29, 1932, The Daily Star reported that the building was nearly completed and moving day was scheduled for December 15.  The logistics of "seeing that 250,000 volumes are treated kindly by the moving men" were under the control of librarian Florence Garing.  The article said, "For several weeks she has been as busy choosing furniture, planning decorations, determining grain of marble and generally supervising the household--or should one say, 'libraryhold''--arrangements for the new home of the many books and records of New York's second oldest book-lending institution."

The New York Times explained that the first floor would house the general reception room and delivery desk.  "The second floor will be used for reading rooms which, in design and furnishings, will be suggestive more of a club than a commercial library," said the article.  The third floor held the librarian's office and the trustee room, and the upper floors were devoted to book stacks.

A housewarming was held on January 7, 1933.  To use the library, one had to be a member.  But, as had been the case in 1821, the membership fee was nominal.  In his report on March 17, 1935, Arthur G. Peacock, president of the Mercantile Library Association, noted, "Each member costs the library two or three times what he pays," and cautioned, "this cannot go on forever."  The library relied heavily on support from the Clinton Hall Association of New York.

By the 1970s, the membership fee was $24 a year.  On October 20, 1975, Thomas Lask of The New York Times described what that $24 entitled the members to:

Smack in the middle of bustling Manhattan, right off Fifth Avenue, in fact, is an oasis of calm, where one can relax in an armchair in clublike surroundings, with a statue of Shakespeare brooding over the fireplace, can sip a cup of tea while scanning The Times Literary Supplemental or The National Geographic, and where, at the end of the stay, he or she can borrow the latest best seller, a fistful of whodunits or a book on a subject being researched.

When Lask wrote the article, the Mercantile Library and the Clinton Hall Association were experiencing financial trouble.  Around 1971, he said, "the inflationary pinch began to be felt severely."  Richard T. Brice, president of the board, said the library would "like to increase its membership to 2,500," from the current 1,400.

Among the members at the time were brothers Paul and David Hofstein.  The men would meet here each Monday morning and, according to The New York Times journalist Kathleen Teltsch, would "spend the morning contentedly reading from the library's rich store of books" in the members' lounge.  David was a tax consultant and Paul worked for the post office.  Their Mondays were free.

The Mercantile Library began a lecture series to increase income.  On March 12, 1975, for instance, George T. Simon gave a lecture with slides and recordings on the life and career of bandleader Glenn Miller.  

In 1982 the Mercantile Writers' Studio was added, described by The New York Times as including, "well-lighted individual spaces, storage units for typewriters and manuscripts, a reference collection, and automatic membership in the library."   The 14 studio spaces were leased for three months at a time for $100.  By then annual membership dues in the library proper had risen to $45.

The Hofstein brothers' decades-long tradition of Monday mornings in the Mercantile Library ended with Paul's death at the age of 77 on May 16, 1986.  On December 13 that year, David donated a glass and mahogany wall clock in his brother's memory.  He told The New York Times reporter Kathleen Teltsch, "The old clock in the library's reading room had simulated chimes, which seemed incongruous and did not really belong there.  I wanted the clock to make a statement as a remembrance of my brother's love of books and the world he brought me into."

The Mercantile Library, known familiarly as "the Merc," continued to experience fiscal problems.  On September 6, 1989, The New York Times reported that it had "stopped its services as a circulating library in mid-August, although its members still have the use of the gracious second-floor reading room, adorned with busts of eminent literary figures and illuminated by 14 chandeliers."  The article said that after the increase in yearly dues, membership had fallen from 1,600 to 420.  At the time, the library's operating budget was $300,000 a year, and its income was $200,000.

Donations funded two renovations.  A $100,000 renovation of the first floor in 1998 by the architectural firm of Beyer Blinder Belle removed old linoleum and fluorescent lighting.  The following year the marble facade was cleaned, and in 2001 the second floor reading room was refreshed.  Nevertheless, library officials recognized, as Arthur G. Peacock had warned in 1935, "this cannot go on forever."

On May 23, 2008, Eric Konigsberg wrote in The New York Times that the Mercantile Library Center for Fiction (the name the organization took in 2005) "is in the process of selling its building at 17 East 47th Street...and will be shutting down in the coming weeks."  (In fact, the Clinton Hall Association was the seller, having held title since 1932.)  The following month journalist Lily Koppel reported on the packing process, saying somewhat wistfully, "Above an ornate iron staircase, marble busts of past presidents and members watch over the reading room of the Mercantile Library, with its molded fireplace and grand piano.  It is an elegant space befitting one of the three private libraries remaining in New York City."  She noted, "Many of the library's nonfiction holdings have been sold off and donated, like books on maritime history and botany."

The Mercantile Library moved to Brooklyn.  The marble building on East 47th Street still dons a sign offering the property for sale.  Recently architect George Boyle submitted plans for the Clinton Hall Association for the proposed The Merc Hotel.  The renovated building would rise 16 floors, the additional eight stories set back from the original cornice.

George Boyle Architect's rendering of the proposed renovations.  via

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


  1. I've forwarded the link to this to numerous publishing people and such as Publishers Weekly.