Advocates hope to preserve the historic Lower East Side building
By Nora Bosworth
As several of Brooklyn’s public libraries face demolition, the Historic Districts Council is swiftly taking steps to protect Manhattan’s own branches.
In March, the New York Times reported that the Brooklyn Heights library will be razed in the near future, only to be rebuilt a few years later on the ground floor of a high-rise apartment building. The plan is part of the New York Public Library’s controversial new financing model.
The money-strapped organization has started selling the coveted land beneath its libraries to developers, with the understanding that the affected library will be reincarnated as the base of a modern residential complex.
The library system adopted this business scheme to help raise the $230 million dollars it needs to repair its various branches. Libraries that are not designated landmarks have no protection against such development.
While many laud the library’s innovative approach to raising money, other New Yorkers – especially those neighboring the affected branches – fear that the old, stone faces of the city’s libraries will eventually all recede into the panorama of cement high-rises. They feel the charm and diversity of urban landscapes will decline when libraries no longer look like libraries. Local residents also worry that during the interim between the destruction of the original library and the construction of the new complex, their children will be without a convenient library for several years.
With this latest trend in mind, last Tuesday the Historic Districts Council held a hearing at the Landmarks Preservation Commission, advocating for the Seward Park branch’s official inauguration as a landmark. Such a designation would offer legal protection against the threat of development and immortalize the Renaissance Revival style building, erected in 1909.
The five-story limestone and brick library, designed by the firm of Babb, Cook and Welch, granted enormous opportunities to the immigrant population of the Lower East Side over the last century, the Council wrote in the hearing’s announcement. The Seward branch is unique in that instead of being tucked like a townhouse amid a crowded block, it stands alone marking the eastern end of Seward Park.
In the Council’s statement they lauded the branch not only for its architectural significance but for the broader value of the public library system.
“The New York Public Library is an institution that embodies the altruistic principle that education is the great societal elevator. It was founded in the belief that everyone should have access to the resources necessary for self-improvement.”
While the Council’s Director of Preservation and Research, Nadezhda Williams, stated clearly that the Seward Park building is not under immediate threat of development, she added, “There’s been a lot going on in Brooklyn with their branch libraries.” She also emphasized that most people probably assumed the Seward branch was already a landmark since it is “in many
people’s hearts,” and thus a formal designation would only cement what the community assumes.
Williams called the hearing “very positive” with about a dozen speakers, including, “preservationists, folks from the neighborhood” and “library lovers.”
The next step will be to put the library’s landmark status to vote if the LPC agrees to calendar a hearing.
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