|photo by Alice Lum|
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 experience 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.”
By the turn of the century Andrew Carnegie not only had the means to establish a library, but scores of them. The philanthropic multimillionaire, who had been born in the attic of a tiny house in Dunfermline, Scotland, gave tens of millions of dollars away; distributing his wealth so other impoverished boys would have an easier time.
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.
Three architectural firms were chosen for the project, among them James Brown Lord who had earlier designed the Free Circulating Library’s Bloomingdale Branch.
Lord was given the commission to design the Yorkville Library at 222-224 East 79th Street. He produced a three-story structure of Indiana limestone over a basement. A fourth story on the roof, invisible from the street, was for the janitor’s use. The 40 by 90 foot building, with equipment, cost Carnegie $70,000.
|photo by Alice Lum|
Lord was somewhat restricted by the Advisory Board of Architects which was appointed by the Board of Trustees, as required by the provisions of Carnegie’s gift. The Board required “conformity with the general type” of architecture it adapted. As a result subsequent libraries would be noticeably similar such as Carrere & Hastings’ building at 190 Amsterdam Avenue, and McKim, Mead & White’s East Broadway library.
|Snarling lion keystones surmounted each of the arched street level openings -- photo by Alice Lum|
|Victorian brownstones still surrounded the library several years after completion -- photo NYPL Collection|
|The design, especially at street level, was similar to the elegant mansions of the area -- photo by Alice Lum|
The Yorkville Library became an integral part of the neighborhood. The Yorkville Neighborhood Associate, formed “for the betterment of social conditions in the neighborhood,” met here during the World War I years, as did the German Association for Culture.
The German Association installed a permanent exhibition of art in the library’s meeting hall and held temporary exhibitions for years. Other art exhibitions, such as the handicraft work of the Trade School of the Hospital of Hope for the Crippled and Injured in 1914, were routinely promoted.
|Elaborate carved garlands spill over the windows beneath the cornice (the artificial owls are not original to Lord's plan!) -- photo by Alice Lum|
It was in the Yorkville Library that Thomas Masaryk conducted his research that eventually led to the formation of the Czech Republic in October 1918.
The library was closed for a few weeks in 1960 for the first time for “major repairs.” Two decades later extensive interior renovations were conducted in 1986 through 1987.
In designating the Yorkville Library a New York City landmark, the Landmarks Preservation Commission called it “one of New York’s most elegant adaptations of the Palladian style to a modern public building and one of the few examples of this phase of Italian Renaissance architecture in New York.” The dignified library is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.