The New York Society Library
New York's oldest cultural institution
It is easy to forget the grandeur and lively history of our city with the many luxury buildings popping up at every corner and the relentless construction that has transformed the once walkable streets into intricate obstacle courses. New Yorkers are forced to dodge demolished sidewalks, step over improvised plank coverings hiding sub-street machinations, just to get even a few blocks away. It has gotten to the point where we have lost sight of what is around us: our historical landmark buildings and that is a crying shame, for there are many gorgeous buildings and homes with aged pedigrees throughout the city. They can be found everywhere, but on the Upper East Side of Manhattan there exists a particular and undisturbed enclave of treasures. They reign undisturbed, left to preside over this once sedate borough, as our city's landmarked history. Right on 79th Street near Park Avenue - a main thoroughfare - is the remarkable New York Society Library. It has been at this address since 1937, but its history runs deep, beginning under British rule, and lived a turbulent past peppered with the comings and goings of some notable luminaries.
I first visited the library many years ago. It was curiosity that drew me to push those heavy doors and look around. I was just out of college and had my first job, then part-time. I had time to explore the city and walked past the library many times, reminding myself I should just walk in. The day finally came, I wore a dress for the occasion. My first impression was the silence throughout the grand entryway, all except the rustling sound of paper coming from the nearby sitting room, where two elderly gentlemen sat reading their newspapers. I entered the room to look around, they did not notice me and just kept on reading, their faces buried in the pages. The floors creaked as I went up to the front desk, where another gentleman stood stiffly, guarding his space. I asked him about membership. I was informed there was a fee and I needed a character reference, preferably from someone in the neighborhood. Undaunted, I asked to visit and was taken on a tour of the Italian style townhouse - cum library- up the grand marble staircase to the five floors above. Was it the J. Sharples painting of George Washington or the Vincenza Luccardi marble sculpture on the landing that drew me in? The surrounding opulence was certainly appealing, as was the impressive collection of books in perfect condition, reference materials, as well as the availability it offered as a writers refuge, providing a crucial bit of additional desk space and silence. Maybe all of it, I don't recall, but I joined, paid and sent in my reference letter. I soon found my place amongst some of the most quirky, at times stodgy people of the neighborhood. I loved every minute of it. There was a lot to observe, interesting people and hours of silence and it was mine, to me at least. If I came in the morning, I would see the same two gentlemen, hidden behind their newsapapers. There were smart looking men in khaki trousers and loafers, horn rimmed glasses and crisp looking blazers. Women dressed impeccably: pearls, Belgian shoes and smart hair styles, carrying canvas initialled tote bags to lug their books in style. Years passed, I left New York. After some time abroad , years later, I returned, this time with my family. The library had gone through many changes, positive ones thankfully. The aura of exclusivity and frequentation by a select few gracefully evolved into a multicultural mix of new members. There were also many families. The annual fee went up, but references were no longer required. Best of all, I got the chance to witness the wonders of the children's library with my daughter, who thoroughly enjoyed the many readings and events held just for children. There were other historical nuggets to find in the stacks and many weekly events to enjoy. Their impressive art collection, filled with works of art by Samuel Lovett Waldo, Adolphe William Bouguereau, Joseph Wright and James Audubon, to name just a few, still grace the walls on every floor. It is a peaceful haven and refuge for members and even a welcoming place for those visiting. The first floor reading room is open to the public, where tea is served to all daily at three. The room is certainly a livelier place than when I first wandered in. I will always remember the two elderly gentlemen sitting in their wingback chairs, flipping the pages of their newspapers, oblivious to all and in my memory, forever part of my past. One of the librarians was quoted as saying that this is one of the most civilized places in the city. “The worst thing that ever happens here,” she said, “is that somebody falls asleep.”
In 1754, six generous New-Yorkers offered a library open to all, creating the first membership library in the city with a wide variety of books available. It operated in a room at the original City Hall on Wall Street and was initially known as "the City Library," which it was. The New York Society Library was the name chosen for the new organization although it was referred to as the New York Library until 1759. It is interesting to point out that the word "society" - in the context of the time - was meant to imply what we would refer to as "community" today. It wasn't the elitist meaning the title conveys, but rather a place deemed by the library's founders as "open to the public". To quote their mission statement: "The rights and privileges in the said Library shall not be confined to this city, but that every person residing in this province may become a subscriber." It received a charter from George III in 1772, and was later confirmed after the Revolution by the New York State Legislature. Desperate times during the revolutionary war resulted in British soldiers looting a fair number of books, as the pages proved useful for rifle wadding. Some books were even taken to barter for rum (hum-hum!) Once the British troups were defeated, the library reopened in 1789 sharing space with the U.S. Congress, at City Hall. New York City became the nation's first capital and City Hall became Federal Hall. A year later, the nation's capital moved to Washington D.C. and the library returned to its original purpose, ever explanding along with New York City's growing population. In 1795 the library boasted 5,000 volumes and lacking space, moved to Nassau Street, where Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper were regular visitors. With the migration of many New Yorkers further north in Manhattan, the library followed the readers as they progressively moved uptown. In 1840 the library was moved to Leonard Street and Broadway, frequented by Henry David Thoreau and John James Audubon, in 1856 to University Place, a favorite place for Herman Melville and Willa Cather and finally to its present quarters at 53 East 79th Street, in 1937. W.H. Auden, Clarence Day, Lillian Hellman, Barbara Tuchman were among its members.
The library's first freeloader
Since it was the city's only lender of books at the time of Washington's presidency, history has revealed (although it is an unverified fun fact), that the first American President took out two volumes and pointedly failed to return them. The library's ledgers show that George Washington took out the books on 5 October 1789, some five months into his presidency, at the time when New York was still the capital. They were an essay on international affairs called "Law of Nations" and the twelfth volume of a 14-volume collection of debates from the English House of Commons. On the ledger, it simply refers to the borrower as "President" in quill pen, and had no return date. In all fairness though, with the digitization of the ledgers, the process made things even more complicated to find out what really happened. As a graceful gesture, the volume of "Law of Nations" was finally returned in 2010, by representatives of Mount Vernon. Many have apparantely speculated about the fine incurred, so true or not, it makes for a good story!
A glass ceiling
A dropped ceiling covered an area where a large leaded skylight had been installed in 1917. It seemed likely that the glass ceiling, (not what the title indicates, a barrier to the advancement of women) would be ruined forever when walled by the previous owners to conserve it in 1947. But when the building superintendent peeled back some galvanized iron panels on the roof, it revealed a dusty, slightly damaged but intact skylight. Restoration was completed in 2010.
The Assistance of the Head of Events
The library's Head of Events, Sara Holliday, helped by allowing me to come before opening hours and photograph the rooms, open to members exclusively. She gave me a generous amount of her time and the information I needed to write this article, which I greatly appreciate. The library is open to all, with over 300,000 books in store. I hope you will enjoy the photos I have posted. Feel free to leave your comments below and please join my website!
Sara Holliday, in the picture-book reading room showing a "Babar" illustration by Laurent de Brunhoff. This children's space was inaugurated by Laurent de Brunhoff in 2013.
53 East 79th Street, New York, NY 10075 (212) 744- 5832