Friday, January 4, 2013

Every Building Has a Story: Muhlenberg Library

Whenever I come across a stately building that looks to be a century old or older, I wonder about its past life: who lived there? What was the surrounding area like when it was built? What was its former use? What is it used for now? I imagine there to be countless stories contained within the walls of these old buildings, but only guessing - often futilely - as to what they could be, I continue on my way.

And what could this building be? Photo taken in 1917 by Irving Underhill, courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.

Identifying the majestic old buildings that still loom over some city streets has become a bit of a game, thanks to Cornerspotter. This regular feature of the real-estate website Curbed asks readers "to identify the location and/or identity of a particular building in a historic photograph." Whoever guesses correctly doesn't win a prize, but they do get bragging rights for being well-versed in their city's history (or at least for being highly observant of their surroundings).

A recent Cornerspotter asked readers to identify the above building, which it said "was built in the early 1900s, and it's still used for the same purpose today." More than a few Curbed readers correctly identified the building as the Muhlenberg branch of the New York Public Library, located at 209 West 23rd Street, between 7th and 8th Avenues in the Manhattan neighborhood of Chelsea. It's a Carnegie library, and it first opened its doors in 1906.

The Muhlenberg branch of New York Public Library today. Photo via

Between 1883 and 1929, steel industry tycoon and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie funded the construction of nearly 1,700 libraries in the United States. Carnegie, who was quoted as saying that "No man can become rich without himself enriching others" and "The man who dies rich, dies disgraced," truly believed in sharing the wealth. He spent billions of his money so that communities, large and small, across the country and around the world could have their own library or libraries. In New York City alone, over $6 million of Carnegie funds went toward 106 public libraries and 3 academic libraries.

The Muhlenberg branch, designed by architects Carrere and Hastings, is three stories high and was built from brick and limestone. According to the New York Public Library website, the branch was "named for William Augustus Muhlenberg, the first rector of Chelsea's Church of the Holy Communion. As rector, he donated many books to the Free Circulating Library, which later became part of the New York Public Library." Today, the library is fully wheelchair-accessible, and it has an audio induction loop and FM assistive listening devices for the hearing impaired in its third-floor community room.

This branch of the New York Public Library was granted landmark status in 2001.

No comments:

Post a Comment