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Washington Heights Library a long chapter in neighborhood history

Now Bethel Holy Church, this was the third of four Washington Heights Libraries since it was established in 1868.
Now Bethel Holy Church, this was the third of four Washington Heights Libraries since it was established in 1868.
©2013 Eric K. Washington

For many uptown locals the wait has seemed endless. But if increasingly tidy renovation sites are an indication, the Washington Heights Library on St. Nicholas Avenue at 160th Street may well reopen this spring as projected.

Since the building opened a century ago, this year's reopening would be timely. But this neighborhood library's history extends much further back to a time, just after the Civil War, when civic-minded New Yorkers seemed to establish new circulating libraries with particular gusto.

First Washington Heights Library opens in 1868

On September 19, 1868, the Washington Heights Library opened on Tenth Avenue (now Amsterdam Avenue) near 160th Street. In less than a year and half, the mere 282 books on its shelves increased to over 1,000 volumes. Its directors also attached “a small reading room, containing the daily papers and choice periodicals,” according to the New York Times.

Around February 1870, the library relocated to the nearby corner of 156th Street and Tenth Avenue. According to century-old bulletins, about 173 local boys and girls paid a five-cent subscription to use the little library, as reflected by the collected sum of $8.65. However, the library was free “to the members of the police force and fire department.”

J. Hood Wright endows library

In 1883 an "unknown friend" bestowed a $100 monthly subscription to the Washington Heights Library. The anonymous benefactor turned out to be banker J. Hood Wright, of Drexel, Morgan & Co. The New York Times reported upon Wright’s death the next year that his will disclosed instructions “to pay to the Washington Heights Library the sum of $100,000, upon condition this institution shall be be maintained at all times as a free circulating library. One-fourth of this sum may be used as a building fund, and the remainder for the purposes of the library.”

Library literature noted a condition of Wright’s will required other standing benefactors to continue their own usual subscriptions. But perhaps the most novel condition was that the library be open a part of each Sunday.

In August 1896, the Washington Heights Library changed its name to the Washington Heights Free Library by an unopposed order of the Supreme Court. Then library President Edmund S. Whitman told the Times that while the original library was “supported by voluntary subscriptions and fees charged for the loan of books,” it had effectively been “free” since Wright’s posthumous $100 a month grant, which Wright’s widow had maintained.

But the corporate name-change was also strategic. It now “enabled [the library] to receive its proportion of the grant from the State for the purchase of books, and also its proportion of the city’s grant to free libraries,” Whitman explained. Indeed, the Washington Heights Free Library was part of a substantive revision of the public library system. On December 23, 1896, the Board of Estimate liberally allotted an aggregate sum of $95,600 for the following year to ten free circulating libraries in New York City, which still constituted only Manhattan at that time.

By June 1899, library trustees had secured a new building site at 922 St. Nicholas avenue, “extending from opposite One Hundred and Fifty-sixth Street through to Edgecombe Avenue,” the Times reported. Construction began in August 1899, the year still visible on the facade in Roman numerals: MDCCCXCIX. Friends of the library raised much of the needed $20,000 building funds; receiving a $10,000 matching gift by raising most of the equal $10,000 sum--achieved by a $1,700 donation from Andrew Carnegie--in individual subscriptions.

On October 24th, the Rev. Charles A. Stoddard, the library’s founder, presided over the new building’s cornerstone-laying. City Council President Randolph Guggenheimer attended, along with about 700 locals who’d gathered to witness the ceremony.

Library merges into New York Public Library

The finished building opened on May 14, 1900. But by the time the public entered their new library that spring, plans for a greater free library system were already underway.

The twentieth century had opened with Andrew Carnegie’s idea that “no one would have to walk more than a quarter of a mile to get good books free of charge.” To that end, a new New York Public Library network was being established. In 1901, the Tilden Act enabled the New York Public Library to take over existing libraries. Through a $3,200,000 gift from Andrew Carnegie, city plans were underway to establish sixty-five new libraries, with some two hundred more foreseen under the new system. The Washington Heights Free Library was thus merged into this bigger entity.

In its early 20th-century years, the rear of the building gave on a pastoral triangle of green called the Library Lawn. Today, the grassy slope still evokes a sweet early 20th-century solitude. One can easily envision erstwhile readers lounging in view of the bustling activity of the Speedway, the Polo Grounds and the to-and-fro traffic of the Macombs Dam Bridge at 155th Street. The lawn was rededicated as the Sugar Hill Luminaries Lawn a few years ago, but wants for such purposefully aimless inactivity as a gathering of recumbent bookworms.

Newly renovated Washington Heights Library

By 1914, the Washington Heights Free Library at 922 St. Nicholas Avenue was considered inadequate. It quit the site for its fourth, and present, building--designed by the Carrère & Hastings architectural firm--at the northeast corner of St. Nicholas avenue and West 160th street.

A library bulletin that year reflected upon its vacated home: “The library, from its character and its location, has always represented local feeling and been prominent in local education.”

This year marks the centennial of the Washington Heights Library’s move to West 160th Street. This spring, the building’s doors are slated to reopen after several years closure for renovation. Quite likely the old local feeling will erupt with a great cheer.

UPDATE: The Washington Heights Library Grand Reopening and Centennial ceremony is set for Monday, March 3, 2014, at 10AM.


  • New York Times
  • New York Public Library bulletins
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