Second Avenue & Saint Mark’s Place

21 May

Well it was only a matter of time before I got to this block. My habits bring it right within my orbit. Because I spend a lot of hours in the different branches of the New York Public Library, especially when it’s raining and I have no place else to go. Not that I’m complaining mind you. I’m always partially amazed that libraries even exist, that the Republicans and privatizers weren’t able to shut them down a long time ago. Have I said all this already? Do I repeat myself? Have I been drinking lately? I mean how many indoor public spaces are there anyway, where you can sit however long you want without having to buy anything? And then on top of that an indoor public space that’s full of books. Free books! And movies! And every time I sit in one I hear at least two people complaining at the check-out counter about their late fees. My god that drives me crazy. I’m muttering to myself about it; I’m sitting in a library right now.

The Ottendorfer Branch, on Second Avenue at Saint Mark’s Place, is the oldest branch library in Manhattan, and with its simple Romanesque style (I’m guessing!) , it’s also one of the prettiest. It opened in 1884, its construction financed by Oswald and Anna Ottendorfer, German immigrants who ran the very popular “Staats-Zeitung,” a German language daily newspaper that still exists today. At the time the library was built, the Lower East Side was called Kleindeutschland, or Little Germany, with a population of at least 150,000 Germans. The Ottendorfers personally selected the library’s first volumes, equally divided between English and German titles, with the hope that it would help new immigrants to better educate and assimilate themselves into American culture.

Before the building was even completed it was donated to the New York Free Circulating Library, a privately funded library system incorporated in 1880, with the intention of providing for the “moral and intellectual elevation of the masses.” There were other libraries in existence in the city at that time, but none of them were truly public in the way we would imagine the term today. The two most prominent were the Astor and Lenox libraries. The Astor library had been opened since 1849, with money left by John Jacob Astor specifically for that purpose. Housed in the building that now holds the Public Theater (and actually built in three different sections over a span of thirty years) it was an important research and reference library, but it didn’t circulate books, and its early closing hours meant most working people wouldn’t find the time to visit. The Lenox library opened in 1871, again with a large endowment, this time from the wealthy James Lenox. Standing on the site of the present day Frick Collection, its housing of primarily rare books was mainly intended for scholars. Entry was free but a ticket of admission was required.

Both these establishments played a large role in the creation of the New York Public Library System.  The catalyst was the death of one-time New York governor and presidential candidate Samuel Tilden in 1886.  In his will he left most of his fortune, $2.4 million, towards the establishment of a free library and reading room for the city of New York.  At the same time both the Astor and Lenox libraries were struggling financially.  It was John Bigelow, a trustee of Tilden’s fortune, who hit upon the idea of combining forces, and in 1895 the “New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundation,” was signed in to existence.  In 1901 they consolidated with the New York Free Circulating Library, incorporating the Ottendorfer as one of their branches.  That same year Andrew Carnegie donated $5.2 million towards the construction of 39 new branches to be built throughout Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island (Brooklyn and Queens already had their own, separate systems that predated the consolidation of the city).  From the first the New York Public Library was a privately managed organization, working in partnership with the city government, depending on both private and public finances to survive.

Boy, you still with me here?  That was a lot of facts and do you know where I found them all?  I’ll give you one guess.

(Originally posted June 12th, 2009 on


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