Written by Carolyn Mays
St. Agnes Library, a branch of the New York Public Library, located at 444 Amsterdam Street near 81st Street, owes its existence to an unlikely pair of library enthusiasts: Andrew Carnegie, industrialist and philanthropist; and Rev. Dr. Edward A. Bradley, a studious Episcopal priest on the Upper West Side.
Andrew Carnegie began working to create free public libraries for Americans at least as early as the 1850s, when he was a teenager and many libraries required subscriptions to use. When he was 17 years old, he worked as a “roller boy” in a textile mill in Pennsylvania. Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, had a model subscription library, which was open to apprentices but not to first-born children. Since Carnegie could not afford a subscription, he petitioned for the use of the library. When he was denied, he published his petition in the Pittsburgh Dispatch, One of the leading newspapers in Pittsburgh at the time. The library would not be freely open to the public, but it did expand access to Carnegie and other textile mill workers. And about this incident, Carnegie wrote that “the treasures of the world that books contain were opened to me at the right moment.”
And after forty years on the Upper West Side, Rev. Dr. Bradley was similarly devoted to the idea of public libraries, though, rather than donating millions, he gave his time.
In 1888, the Trinity Corporation, affiliated with Trinity Church at 89 Broadway and Wall Street, planned to build a church, parish house, and clergy house at 121-147 West 91st Street, between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues. At this time the prescient parish priest, Rev. Dr. Bradley, saw the need for a library on the Upper West Side, so one was built as part of the parish campus.
Chief Reference Librarian Harry Miller Ledenberg writes in his book, A History of the New York Public Library: The Foundations of Astor, Lennox, and Tilden is called: “In that day there was no public library nearer than that of George Bruce at the New York Free Circulating Library at 226 West 42nd Street to the South and Harlem Branch. That library located at 1943 Madison Avenue, near 125th Street, to the north.
When St. Agnes Episcopal Church opened in 1893, Rev. Dr. Bradley ran the church and its library with equal dedication. Indeed, Lidenberg wrote, “the demand for books was so great that, by the end of the year, Dr. Bradley had become more emboldened to extend his domain from his diocese into the neighborhood and community.” Once the library was opened to the public in 1894, it grew rapidly: by 1895, it had grown to 2,000 volumes. During this time, it also included Braille books for blind readers.
The increasing size of the library necessitated several moves within the neighborhood, from 526 Amsterdam Street, to 85 Amsterdam, and to 82nd Broadway. Rev. Dr. Bradley was “deeply disturbed” by these moves, as he felt he could not properly look after the library when it was not attached to the parish. Unfortunately, he died suddenly in 1898. In 1901, the library was merged with the New York Public Library, and moved several more times.
In 1906, Carnegie was on a roll: he had been donating his fortune to libraries for twenty years. Thus, like many neighborhood libraries of the era, the permanent relocation of St. Agnes Library to 444 Amsterdam Street and West 82nd Street was funded by a Carnegie grant. By the time Carnegie died, he had donated $60 million to create 1,689 new libraries across the United States, and a thousand more throughout Europe, Africa, Asia, and Oceania.
The St. Agnes Library Building was designed by the New York City architecture firm that originally consisted of George Fletcher Babb, Walter Cooke, and Daniel W. Willard. This company was a favorite of Carnegie, who hired it in 1902 to build his mansion at 2 East 91st Street, which is now the Cooper Hewitt Museum. According to Philip James Dodd, architect and author of The American Renaissance: Beaux Arts Architecture in New York City, one of Carnegie’s conditions was a donation to the New York Public Library if he could select architects for the new branches. His other condition was that the library should buy the plot of land; He will only pay construction costs. They reached a compromise regarding the architects, and agreed that a committee of architects would design the libraries. Carnegie insisted that Babb, Cook, and Willard be included. In the early 20th century, Babb, Cook and Willard were not considered part of the elite architects of the time. Dowd described them as “strong” and not the “most subtle” or “complex”. But in the end, Dodd said, Carnegie’s favorite companies were included on the committee and the companies “pretty much divided all 65 branches among themselves.”
Many of the libraries built with Carnegie donations, including the St. Agnes Libraries, look similar in terms of design — and not just because they were all built in the Beaux-Arts style popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Most Carnegie libraries are located in the middle of a block of flats, because, as Dodd explained, the library was buying lots, and lots in the middle block were cheaper. Architectural firms, Dowd said, “were not able to be very creative, if that makes any sense, because they kind of followed rules.” The unified design was intended because the individual buildings are “recognizable as a branch of the New York Public Library,” Dodd said, comparing the brand’s consistency to a modern-day McDonald’s.
The St. Agnes Library is built of limestone and features three rows of windows with tracery surrounds. The lower two rows are rounded, while the upper set of windows are square. The middle row of windows “tends to be the most elaborate,” Dodd explained, because the style was inspired by Italian palaces, and “within Italian palaces, the main floor was the second floor.” Above the upper windows, the words “New York Public Library” are inscribed on the facade. Above, Dodd described the building as having a flat roof, or horizontal molding, held up by short columns. Finally, at the top is the decorative balustrade on the roof, which is called the balustrade.
The 96th Street Library at 222 East 96th Street, and the Yorkville Library at 222 East 79th Street are bookshops created by Babb, Cook, and Willard in the same style. Wikipedia has a list of the Carnegie Libraries in New York, with photos, which clearly show how similar the libraries are.
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