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The Very First Carnegie Library in NYC

Because I'm a NYC history geek, I read historical signs, plaques, and labels. While returning borrowed books to my neighborhood library, I noticed that the old plaque on the front of the building read it was a "Carnegie Gift." Of course, I needed to learn more.

Starting back in 1883, retired steel-magnate, Andrew Carnegie focused on philanthropic causes, one being building libraries. Having no formal education himself, Carnegie was forever grateful for the access to Pittsburgh's Colonel James Anderson's personal library, opened on Saturday nights to working boys. Carnegie once wrote, "if ever wealth came to me, [I'd to see to it] that other poor boys might receive opportunities similar to those for which we were indebted to the nobleman."

At the beginning, he directed money to communities to which he had a personal connection, the first being his birthplace in Scotland, and then Pennsylvania.

The New York Public Library was established on May 23, 1895. Three years later, the Carnegie Corporation of New York awarded $5,2 million (that's about $162m today!) to build 67 branch (circulating) libraries. The City was responsible for providing the sites and funding the libraries' maintenance and operations. In 1901, the NYPL consolidated with The New York Free Circulating Library and over the next 23 years, 39 Carnegie libraries were built within Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island (the Brooklyn Public Library and Queens Library were and remain separate entities from the NYPL).

And what was the very first NYPL building constructed with the Carnegie Gift in 1902? That's right — Yorkville — MY neighborhood library!

Photo credit: Jim Henderson/Wikipedia

Many of the circulating library buildings were designed by renowned architectural firms like McKim, Mead, & White, and Carrère & Hastings (architects of the NYPL building on 5th Avenue).

The New York Public Library 1910, designed by Carrère & Hastings

The first one, the Yorkville branch, was designed by architect, James Brown Lord, most known for the Beaux Arts-style Appellate Division Courthouse of NY State on Madison Square (see pic), Unfortunately, Lord died prematurely at the age of 43 in 1902. The Yorkville Library's building was designated a NYC landmark in 1967, and added as a National Register of Historic Places in 1982.

NYS Appellate Division Courthouse, designed by James Brown Lord

A total of 2,509 Carnegie public and university libraries were built between 1883 and 1929, of which 1,689 were built in the United States. New York City’s collection of Carnegie libraries is the largest in the country. Of those original 67 libraries built with the Carnegie gift, 57 are still standing, of which 54 are still operating libraries. Thirteen are designated New York City landmarks.

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