If you’ve ever walked across East 79th Street, you’ve probably noticed a handsome Italianate town house between Park and Madison Avenue belonging to The New York Society Library. I pass it to and fro on my jaunts to Central Park or when en route to the Upper West. Whenever I’m stuck in traffic my eyes are always drawn to the large parlor floor windows, embellished by their pointed and curved pediments and fine balustrades.
I recently learned that 53 East 79th Street was built in 1917 for John S. Rogers and his family (his wife was the former Catherine Dodge). Designed by Trowbridge and Livingston — architects of 23 Wall Street (J.P. Morgan & Co.’s Wall Street headquarters), 14 Wall Street (originally the Bankers Trust Company Building), and the St. Regis Hotel (see last week’s visit the Core Club) — two brownstones were demolished to make way for the new mansion, including one owned by architect and interior designer Ogden Codman, Jr. (who with Edith Wharton co-authored The Decoration of Houses, which at the time became the holy grail of American interior design).
The building, now a New York City landmark, was converted for use as a library in 1937 with funds provided by Sarah C. Goodhue.
I’m actually a recent member and when stopping by the other day I discovered that the Library is in the midst of celebrating its 270th anniversary year. This number astounded me. And that just last week, they hosted an opening reception for their newest exhibition, A Belief in Books, highlighting a number of 18th-century books and correspondence in their collection, along with historical research and images.
The Library has a remarkable history. Founded in 1754, the New York Society Library is the city’s oldest cultural institution and one of the first libraries (the oldest in NYC) in the United States. It has played a central role in the evolution of the availability of books in New York City and the country at large. And that is no exaggeration.
The Library’s founding came before the French and Indian War, when the city was mostly located south of Wall Street and had only 15,000 residents. George Washington was a mere 22 years old.
At that time there was no library in the city open to the public. So the “New York Society,” a group of six civic-minded individuals — made up of William Alexander, John Morin Scott, William Smith, and Philip, Robert and William Livingston — believed that a subscription library which anyone could join “would be very useful as well as ornamental to the City,” and would inevitably lead to a better society.
Their enthusiasm convinced a number of friends to participate, and they sold more than a hundred shares at five pounds each, with yearly assessments of ten shillings. The new concept opened on Wall Street in a room in the old City Hall. And for a century and a half — until the founding of the public library system in 1895 — it was known as “the City Library.”
During the Revolution, the Library’s books were looted by British soldiers occupying Manhattan; some were torn up to make wadding for rifles and others were sold for booze. After the war, a few books that had been stored at St. Paul’s Chapel in lower Manhattan were recovered, and in 1784 others were found through advertisement.
In 1789, the Library reopened in its previous quarters in the old City Hall. In 1789 and 1790, when New York was the nation’s capital and Congress occupied the building — then renamed Federal Hall — it served as the first Library of Congress; and was used by George Washington and John Jay.
During this time, two books were charged out to George Washington but were never returned! (the fine for overdue books at that time was three pence a day; so we’re talking over 220 years of accumulated fines). Amazingly, in 2010, representatives from Mount Vernon Estate & Gardens contacted the Library to say they had located a copy (same edition) of one of the missing books, The Law of Nations by Emer de Vattel, and wanted to gift it to the Library. So after more than two centuries, the book was back in their collection.
In 1795, the Library had grown to 5,000 volumes and moved into its own building at 33 Nassau Street, where Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper were visitors. As the city has grown, the Library has followed readers as they moved uptown—in 1840 to Leonard Street and Broadway, where Henry David Thoreau and John James Audubon were browsers; in 1856 to 109 University Place, a favorite haunt of Herman Melville (he borrowed books on whaling when writing Moby Dick) and Willa Cather; and in 1937 to its present quarters at 53 East 79th Street, frequented by W.H. Auden, Clarence Day, Lillian Hellman, Barbara Tuchman, David Halberstam, Wendy Wasserstein, Shirley Hazzard, P.G. Wodehouse, Mary McCarthy, and thousands of others.
A Belief in Books. The Library’s current exhibition is an important one as it addresses the fact that while Enlightenment thought demanded individual rights for white men, it also upheld the idea that slavery was part of the natural world order.
One fifth of New York’s population was enslaved; and every aspect of New York’s economy relied on the slave trade, as did the fortune of every colonist, including the Library’s founders. Only British ships with British goods could enter New York harbor, and the ships that carried books from London also carried enslaved Africans to the American and Caribbean colonies.
Books on display from the Library’s collection between 1754 and the outbreak of the Revolutionary War illustrate the wide variety of genres and titles read by Library members, including: Henry Baker‘s The Microscope Made Easy; Issac Watts’ The Improvement of the Mind; Eliza Haywood‘s The Female Spectator; and Tobias Smollett‘s The Complete History of England.
A Belief in Books is open to the public in the Peluso Family Exhibition Gallery through December 31, 2024.
My suggestion? Become a member, explore the Library’s art and other objects from all periods of its history, walk through the reading and study rooms, and gain access to all nine stacks!