Library Luxury of a Different Sort

The exterior of the Fort Washington library the year it opened, 1914. The top floor windows are for the apartment. (Photo: New York Public Library/Public Domain)

The beautiful Beaux-Arts design of many of the buildings in the New York Public Library system represent only one definition of luxury. The idea of children growing up playing and reading in the stacks at night produces the colorful imaginings of literature where children spend nights in museums, or ramble about in the “tippy-top floor of the Plaza Hotel”.

I’m sure most of us haven’t heard of the custodian apartments that used to grace New York City’s branch libraries, and I for one, am grateful to Atlas Obscura for sharing this curious history.

Inside the New York Public Library’s Last, Secret Apartments

There are just 13 left.

There used to be parties in the apartments on the top floors of New York City’s branch libraries. On other nights, when the libraries were closed, the kids who lived there might sit reading alone among the books or roll around on the wooden library carts—if they weren’t dusting the shelves or shoveling coal. Their hopscotch courts were on the roof. A cat might sneak down the stairs to investigate the library patrons.

When these libraries were built, about a century ago, they needed people to take care of them. Andrew Carnegie had given New York $5.2 million, worth well over $100 million today, to create a city-wide system of library branches, and these buildings, the Carnegie libraries, were heated by coal. Each had a custodian, who was tasked with keeping those fires burning and who lived in the library, often with his family. “The family mantra was: Don’t let that furnace go out,” one woman who grew up in a library told the New York Times.

But since the ’70s and ’80s, when the coal furnaces started being upgraded and library custodians began retiring, those apartments have been emptying out, and the idyll of living in a library has disappeared. Many of the apartments have vanished, too, absorbed, through renovations for more modern uses, back into the buildings. Today there are just 13 library apartments left in the New York Public Library system.

Fort Washington, the front room.

Some have spent decades empty and neglected. “The managers would sort of meekly say to me—do you want to see the apartment?” says Iris Weinshall, the library’s chief operating officer, who at the beginning of her tenure toured all the system’s branches. The first time it happened, she had the same reaction any library lover would: There’s an apartment here? Maybe I could live in the apartment.

“They would say, look, just be careful when you go up there,” she says. “It was wild. You could have this gorgeous Carnegie…”

“And then… surprise!” says Risa Honig, the library’s head of capital planning.

“You go to the third floor…”

“And it’s a haunted house.”

The apartment doesn’t feel haunted, exactly, but lonely and left behind. There is, however, a mysterious black door, with three sections, and a row of bells alongside it. No one knows where it leads, and it’s jammed shut…

Even the flagship 42nd Street building once had an apartment in it, occupied by a superintendent who had been a bootblack, bartender, Harvard man, boxing instructor, and a designer for Thomas Edison. The family moved out in 1941, because the library needed the space for a mimeograph room, telephone switchboard, and smoking rooms.

At Fort Washington, now, the library’s programming room is a dark and narrow space on the second floor. After school, when the kids and teenagers arrive, the bottom two floors fill up fast. The teens have to stay on the first floor, with the adults; after-school tutors clash with parents over the proper noise level. There’s no elevator here, either, so when parents bring their kids for story time, the entryway is crowded with a phalanx of strollers.

That’s why the library is renovating the apartments, one by one…

Click here for more photos.

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