Step Inside The Secret Rooms Hidden Within Iconic New York Public Libraries

It’s the late 2010s and a woman wanders into a public building in New York City. The large construction is filled with books, magazines, journals, computers and various forms of multimedia. It is the Fort Washington Library, located near the George Washington Bridge in Upper Manhattan. She soon makes her way up to the top floor. And up there she discovers a secret room that’s been left vacant for decades.

The very notion that any of the New York Public Libraries could have rooms that almost nobody knows about might seem entirely fanciful. Because the grand municipal buildings across the city have a high level of footfall on any given day. Let alone over a month or a year. So surely someone would have noticed something by now?

The New York Public Library’s own website estimates that the long-running community hubs welcome over 17 million people every annum. Going by Worldometer’s latest figures, that is just 143,787 shy of the entire population of the Netherlands. An astonishing number of folk by any measure.

ADVERTISEMENT

And New York City’s Public Library system is one of the most substantial in the world. You see, across its 92 locations in the vast metropolis – which include Manhattan, The Bronx and Staten Island – it is home to a mind-boggling 55 million items. That’s right; tens of millions of books, DVDs, newspapers, journals and the like are housed inside them.

The library system’s astonishing magnitude makes it one of the largest of its kind. Actually, the New York Public Library is second only to the Library of Congress in the United States, which serves that branch of government and nominally the whole nation. Outside of the country, the British Library is the sole entity that trumps the NYC operation for its size.

ADVERTISEMENT

The library system’s roots can be traced back to the middle of the nineteenth century. Because in 1848 the wealthy businessman John Jacob Astor passed away. And the German-born American had left a load of money in his will for the establishment of a library in New York City.

ADVERTISEMENT

Plus the library would have to be open to the public. Astor – who’d made his fortune in fur and later real estate – was an exceedingly rich man for the time, and reportedly the earliest multi-millionaire in America’s history. And the money he left for the project was a cool $400,000, or roughly $11.8 million in today’s dough.

ADVERTISEMENT

So following Astor’s passing at the age of 84, it was put in the hands of a board of appointed trustees to implement his wishes as indicated in his will. And concrete plans were drawn up for the public enterprise. Construction would begin in 1854, a mere six years after his death.

ADVERTISEMENT

The new Astor Library would be located in the East Village area of lower Manhattan. But it effectively served as a reference library, so although it was free to enter its books could not be taken out on loan. Anyway, by 1870 plans to add another to the network gathered momentum.

ADVERTISEMENT

Yes, the Lenox Library – which was named after the philanthropist James Lenox – would be constructed in 1877. Located on Fifth Avenue, it contained a large assemblage of its founder’s art works and rare books, perhaps most notably the first Gutenberg Bible in America. But it is unclear if the idea of installing secret rooms ever came up. Annoyingly for the public, it wasn’t free to enter and offered no personal access to its literary works.

ADVERTISEMENT

Then the death of another prominent figure, several years later, bequeathed more money for the city. This time it was NYC’s former Governor Samuel J. Tilden. And Tilden was a strong advocate of creating a library system. When he died in 1886, he left the majority of his considerable wealth to “establish and maintain a free library and reading room in the city of New York.”

ADVERTISEMENT

So later in 1895 a decision was taken to merge the struggling Astor and Lenox libraries into one system. Thus was born the New York Public Library and three associated foundations – Astor, Lenox and Tilden. But it wasn’t until the ultra-wealthy industrialist Andrew Carnegie got involved that the NYC library as we know it really took off.

ADVERTISEMENT

Yes, in March of 1901 Scottish-born Carnegie would offer up an eye-watering $5.2 million – $160 million in today’s money – towards building 65 new libraries in New York City. The filthy rich steel magnate’s only stipulation was that the City of New York should operate and maintain them. Not a bad deal, it’s fair to say.

ADVERTISEMENT

And so Carnegie and the City of New York authority signed off on the deal. Then land was purchased for the numerous buildings to go. But only a few architects were employed for the job, to try and guarantee a consistency of style across them, as well as to simplify and minimalize the costs.

ADVERTISEMENT

Ultimately, the firms Carrère and Hastings, McKim, Mead & White, and Walter Cook were hired to design and build all the new libraries across New York. And they became known as “Carnegie Libraries” after the largest financial donor. Yet the public library systems of Brooklyn and Queens opted against joining the project for some reason.

ADVERTISEMENT

The trustees of the new system were serious about the collections that would fill their network of libraries, too. That’s right: they consulted with experts to secure a wide range of books and other items that would be made available to New Yorkers. And close to 12 million books would be added to begin with, so there was certainly plenty to read.

ADVERTISEMENT

Anyway, the construction of the network of public libraries would soon commence. It was decided that the New York Public Library system needed a main branch, and a site on Fifth Avenue was deemed perfect for this. Carrère and Hastings crafted the eye-catching grand structure in the Beaux-Arts style, and it opened its doors for the first time on May 23, 1911.

ADVERTISEMENT

At the time of its opening, the main library was the largest marble structure in America. Aside from the grandeur of its interior, it is perhaps most famous for the two iconic E. C. Potter sculptures at the front. Yes, visitors from NYC and around the world adore Patience and Fortitude, the lions forged out of marble who guard the entrance. Best not try and steal a book or DVD, then.

ADVERTISEMENT

The interior of the main branch, though, is really something special. The original design was done by Dr. John Shaw Billings, the library’s first director. His proposal included an enormous reading room above seven floors filled with books. When it opened it was the world’s largest, measuring 77 feet wide by 295 feet long, with ornate, 50-foot-high ceilings.

ADVERTISEMENT

The main branch of the library – which is now officially known as the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building – acquired the exalted status of National Historic Landmark in 1965. Just two years later, it was chosen as a New York City Landmark. But little did the millions of people who enjoyed its books and architectural splendour know that there were actually a bunch of secret rooms hidden away in the construction.

ADVERTISEMENT

And the main building of the New York Library system is not the only one to have a secret room or two inside. In actual fact, of all the so-called Carnegie libraries there were 30 of them that at one time had – or still have – such hidden spaces.

ADVERTISEMENT

As mentioned earlier, the majority of these Carnegie libraries have a very similar design. Nearly all of them have gigantic, sweeping windows which were installed to keep them well-lit and cool. And their relative uniformity was clearly influenced by the small number of architects enlisted to design and build them.

ADVERTISEMENT

But aside from their similar facades, there remains the mysterious and fascinating story of the secret rooms within them. So why did the so-called Carnegie libraries have secluded rooms and floors inside that were essentially kept a secret? What was being hidden away from the visitors’ prying eyes?

ADVERTISEMENT

Well, sometime in the late 2010’s a reporter named Sarah Laskow decided to go and find out for herself. The journalist – who was senior editor for Science at The Atlantic – was writing for the travel website Atlas Obscura. The popular site has made curious and largely-unknown travel destinations its forte.

ADVERTISEMENT

So Laskow made her way to the Fort Washington Library on West 179th Street, which is one of the Carnegie establishments. The reporter narrated her experience for a video uploaded to Atlas Obscura’s YouTube account in 2018. And upon entering she noted how on the lower floors, at least, “it looks like pretty much any library.”

ADVERTISEMENT

But as Laskow noted, the upstairs is a different matter entirely. The journalist revealed a spooky anecdote, from a person who was working in the particular branch at the time. She said, “Someone who works for the library once told me it feels to them like being in a haunted house.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Laskow continued, “Walking up the stairs, you can sort of feel that. There’s this water stain coming down one of the walls, and the stairs are pretty, but they’re dirty. And there’s this like white plaster falling from the ceiling.” Doesn’t sound like the most welcoming of places, then.

ADVERTISEMENT

Once upstairs, Laskow noted a large area that had been seemingly abandoned for many years. She said, “The first thing you see when you get up there is this big room, and it would have been used as a public space, maybe for lectures, or meetings, or dances.” But then she stumbled upon the building’s big surprise.

ADVERTISEMENT

On the top floor of the Fort Washington library in New York City, there lies a secret apartment, which has been vacant for years. Yes, the hidden sections within the Carnegie libraries in New York City were actually living quarters. But who on earth lived in them?

ADVERTISEMENT

The answer to that question is simple: the superintendents and their families, if indeed they had them. Yes, the New York libraries’ supers at one-time resided in their day-to-day place of work. Hidden away in an inaccessible area. This may come as a surprise to many of you, but we can assure you that it’s true.

ADVERTISEMENT

We are talking about people like John Fedeler. Because he was the first superintendent of the main library, and resided in the eight-room apartment in the New York Public Library’s chief branch for 30 years. And he began working there when it first opened back in 1911, and finished up the year America finally got involved in World War II.

ADVERTISEMENT

That year was 1941, of course. But Fedeler didn’t live alone in the library’s main branch. No, in actual fact the first superintendent would bring-up two children there, with his daughter being born on the mezzanine floor. And in that aforementioned year, Fedeler’s son, John Junior, would take over from his father in the role.

ADVERTISEMENT

So why did the superintendents live in the Carnegie libraries? Couldn’t they just commute to work like almost everyone else? Well, in a word, no, they couldn’t. The supers were made to live in the buildings they worked in out of sheer necessity. It came as a part of the job.

ADVERTISEMENT

The reason? Well, as Laskow explained, “The buildings were heated by coal back then, and the custodians had to keep feeding the furnaces all day and all night.” That’s right. The library’s superintendents would need to ensure the coal heating system kept ticking over, and effectively be on the job 24/7. Talk about bringing your work home with you!

ADVERTISEMENT

The libraries needed to be warm enough to ensure that the books wouldn’t become damp, moreover. It must have been a monotonous task, but one that was vital for the libraries to function. It also meant that the superintendents would be nearly permanently library-bound, given they couldn’t stray too far from the building before it needed reheating.

ADVERTISEMENT

So the superintendents were provided with apartments above the libraries: A sizable lodging in an often-enviable area of New York City thrown in with the salary. Not a bad deal when you think about it. However, when modern central heating as we know it was invented, the requirement for live-in supers was effectively eradicated overnight.

ADVERTISEMENT

Thus all of the once cosy living-quarters were abandoned, and in time they would fall into disrepair. But many of them were repurposed for alternative uses in the years that followed, like public spaces or for storage. And today only 13 of the 30 Carnegie libraries that had apartments within them remain.

ADVERTISEMENT

During her visit to the Fort Washington branch, Laskow noted how spooked she was by the abandoned apartment. She said, “It was creepy. The light switches weren’t working, so it was really dark, and we had to watch where we stepped, because they told me the floors weren’t really safe. But one of the first things I noticed was how bright the walls are. I mean, whoever lived here wanted to make it feel welcoming and fun.”

ADVERTISEMENT

And one person who can vouch for the apartments being those things is the actress Sharon Washington. You see, she would grow up in not one but three of the New York Libraries, due to her dad’s job as a superintendent. Washington loves telling people she lived in them, and credits the experience with her own creativity. “I think part of the reason why I’m an actress today is because it fuelled my imagination,” she told CBC.

ADVERTISEMENT

As it turns out then there was a very good reason for the construction of the clandestine rooms. The superintendents were there to do an important job, and were pretty much on-call at all times. In the olden days, they literally kept these places that New Yorkers know and love going. But, at the same time, it likely wasn’t a bad life. As Laskow suggests, “It’s pretty much a dream to live in a library, right?”

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT