Earlier today, we posted a brief item following the vote by the Landmarks Preservation Commission to protect the Seward Park Library. Now we have more details. First off, here’s the full narrative that was read during today’s hearing, making the case for designation:
The Seward Park branch of the New York Public Library has served the immigrant community of the Lower East Side since it opened its doors on November 11, 1909. This building was one of 20 branch libraries in Manhattan and one of 67 total in the five boroughs funded by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie’s 1901 donation of 5.2 million dollars to the New York Public Library. It was built as a permanent home for the growing needs of the branch, which had originally been the downtown branch of the Aguilar Library (established 1886) and was located across the street in the Educational Alliance Building.
The Seward Park library was designed by the firm of Babb, Cook & Welch, a leading architectural firm of the day and one of a handful of firms chosen to carry out designs for the Carnegie libraries. The three-story brick and limestone-trimmed Italian Renaissance Revival style building features a rusticated limestone base, arched window and door openings with projected keystones and console brackets, molded window surrounds; rusticated quoining at the building corners, a limestone frieze with the “New York Public Library” inscribed below a modillioned cornice, a limestone balustrade with piers capped by finials, and a copper railing of anthemia running between each pier. The railing supported the canvas awning for an “open-air” reading room on the roof. It was one of five such roof-top reading rooms constructed on branch library buildings in the early 1900s and is the only one to survive on a building still in active use as a library. Other key features of the design include the large first story windows intended to allow passersby to glimpse the readers in the main reading room; the dignified simplicity of the design reflecting “public and municipal character” of the building; and the incorporation of small fenced gardens to provide a visual link with Seward Park, which was originally separated from the library by Jefferson Street.
The Seward Park branch housed book collections for adults, young adults, and children, as well as foreign-language collections, including an extensive Yiddish language collection. It offered classes in English for immigrants and worked in conjunction with the Educational Alliance, the Henry Street Settlement, the leading Yiddish-language newspapers and cultural organizations to provide programs that made it one of the most heavily used of the branches within the New York Public Library system and a major cultural force in the Lower East Side. Writers Nella Larsen and Pura Teresa Belpré worked as librarians and storytellers in the Children’s Room during the 1920s; and over the years artists Abbo Ostrowsky, Jay Van Everen, Elias Grossman, and Saul Raskin lent works of art for display in the library. Long after the Jewish population of the Lower East Side began to disperse, the library’s collections of Hebrew and Yiddish literature, lectures by leading Jewish intellectuals, and groups like the Yiddish Mothers, made it a center for Jewish intellectual life, drawing participants from throughout the city.
By the mid-20th century, the neighborhood around the library had begun to change, with major urban renewal projects like the Seward Park Cooperative housing development, completed in 1960, reshaping the physical and social landscape. By the 1960s, the ethnic character of neighborhood had shifted and the Seward Park branch was serving an expanding population of Puerto Ricans, African-Americans, and Chinese and Asian immigrants and young artists. Responding to these changes, the library became a center for Civil Rights and anti-poverty programs, added materials in Chinese, Spanish, and other languages, and began hosting a Lower East Side film festival. Renovated in 2002-2004, the Seward Park Branch continues to serve a diverse population and is a significant reminder of the Lower East Side’s rich heritage.
During today’s hearing, commissioners spoke in glowing terms about the library. Chairman Robert Tierney said the building was “architecturally a slam dunk” for the commission. “It’s quite moving,” he added that the institution has played such a central role in the cultural life of the Lower East Side, constantly adapting as new immigrant groups settled in the historic neighborhood.
Local preservationists were equally enthused following today’s vote:
Friends of the Lower East Side and the Seward Park Preservation and History Club thank the Landmarks Commission for the landmark designation that will preserve this neighborhood institution for future generations and hopes that the Landmarks Commission will consider all of the other yet-to-be designated Carnegie library branches throughout the city.
If you’d like to read more about the Seward Park Library, here are two good places to start:
The Bowery Boys: What a View! Library Roof Gardens in the Lower East Side
New York Times: A Library’s Century of “Hungering Imagination‘