Lenox Library, New York City

The Lenox Library, seen from the corner of Fifth Avenue and 70th Street in New York City, around 1900-1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene on December 20, 1913. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, George Grantham Bain Collection.

The scene in 2019:

The modern concept of a public library in the United States began in the second half of the 19th century, and many such libraries had their origins in private libraries that were run by organizations or by wealthy benefactors. Here in New York City, these included the Astor Library and Lenox Library. Both were open to the public—with restrictions, particularly here at the Lenox Library—but they were intended primarily for researchers, and the books did not circulate. However, these two libraries formed the basis for the New York Public Library, which was established upon their merger in 1895.

The Lenox Library was the younger of the two institutions, having been established in 1870, although its founder, James Lenox, had begun collecting rare books several decades earlier. The son of wealthy merchant Robert Lenox, James inherited over a million dollars after his father’s death in 1839, along with a significant amount of undeveloped farmland in what is now the Upper East Side. He had studied law at Columbia, although he never actually practiced, instead spending much of his time collecting books and art.

For many years Lenox kept his collection in his house, which became increasingly overcrowded and disorganized. As a result, he created the Lenox Library in 1870, and that year he hired architect Richard Morris Hunt to design a suitable building, which would be located on Lenox-owned land here on Fifth Avenue, opposite Central Park between 70th and 71st Streets. It was one of the first major commissions for Hunt, who would go on to become one of the leading American architects of the late 19th century.

The building, shown here in the first photo, was completed in 1877. It was a combination library and art museum, featuring four reading rooms plus a painting gallery and a sculpture gallery. Admission was free of charge, but for the first ten years patrons were required to obtain tickets in advance by writing to the library, which would then send the tickets by mail. In any case, the collections here at the library would not have been of much interest to the casual reader. Because of Lenox’s focus on rare books, the library was, in many ways, more of a museum of old books than a conventional library. In addition, its holdings were far less comprehensive than most libraries, with a narrow focus on the subjects that Lenox was personally interested in.

Despite these limitations, though, the library was valuable for researchers searching for hard-to-find volumes. Perhaps the single most important book in its collection was a Gutenberg Bible, which Lenox had acquired in 1847. It was the first Gutenberg Bible to come to the United States, and it is now owned by the New York Public Library, where it is on display in the McGraw Rotunda. Other rare works included Shakespeare’s First Folio and the Bay Psalm Book, which was the first book published in the American colonies. Aside from books, the library also had important documents, including the original manuscript of George Washington’s farewell address, and its art collection featured famous paintings such as Expulsion from the Garden of Eden by Thomas Cole, and a George Washington portrait by Gilbert Stuart.

Overall, James Lenox contributed about 30,000 books to the library, which continued to grow after his death in 1880. By the 1890s, it had over 80,000 books, thanks to a number of significant donations and purchases. These additions helped to broaden the scope of the collection, making it more useful to the general public. However, the library struggled financially during the late 19th century, as did the Astor Library, and in 1895 they merged with the newly-created Tilden Trust to form the New York Public Library.

The new library subsequently moved into its present-day location at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street in 1911, and the former Lenox Library was sold to industrialist Henry Clay Frick, who demolished it to build his mansion on the site. A longtime business associate of Andrew Carnegie, Frick was the chairman of the Carnegie Steel Company, and by the 1910s he was among the richest men in the country. In 1918, for example, the first Forbes Rich List ranked him second only to John D. Rockefeller, with a net worth of around $225 million.

Frick had purchased the library property in 1906 for $2.47 million, but he had to wait until the library had moved its collections to the new building before he could take possession of the land. He ultimately acquired it in 1912, and demolished the old library that same year. His new home was then built here over the next two years, with a Beaux-Arts exterior that was designed by Thomas Hastings, a noted architect whose firm, Carrère and Hastings, had also designed the New York Public Library. The second photo shows the house in December 1913, in the midst of the construction. The exterior was largely finished by this point, but it would take nearly a year before Frick moved into the house with his wife Adelaide and their daughter Helen.

Like James Lenox, Frick was a collector, using his vast fortune to amass a variety of artwork and furniture. Upon his death in 1919, he stipulated that his house and its contents would become a museum, although Adelaide would be allowed to live here for the rest of her life. She died in 1931, and over the next four years the house was converted into a museum, opening to the public in 1935 as the Frick Collection.

Today, despite its changes in use, the exterior of the building from this view is not significantly different than it was when the first photo was taken more than a century ago. It still houses the Frick Collection, with the museum receiving around 300,000 visitors per year. Although not as large as many of the other major art museums in New York, it features a high-quality collection of paintings and furniture, including a good variety of works by the European Old Masters. The building itself is also an important work of art in its own right, and in 2008 it was designated as a National Historic Landmark in recognition of its architectural significance.

New York Public Library Main Entrance, New York City

The main entrance to the New York Public Library at 5th Avenue and 41st Street, around 1911-1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The scene in 2019:

As discussed in an earlier post, the main branch of the New York Public Library was completed here in 1911, on the west side of 5th Avenue between 40th and 42nd Streets. It was designed by the noted architectural firm of Carrère and Hastings, and it features an ornate Beaux-Arts exterior. Here on 5th Avenue, the main entrance consists of three archways, each flanked by a pair of Corinthian columns. Six statues stand above the entrance, and there are also others closer to the ground, including in the alcoves on the left and right, and the lions on either side of the stairway.

The first photo was evidently taken soon after the building was opened, because not all of the statues were installed by this point. The lions, designed by sculptor Edward Clark Potter, were here, but the statues in the alcoves—Beauty and Truth by Frederick William MacMonnies—had yet to be added. Above the entrance, a lonely statue stands on the far right side in the first photo, although it would later be joined by the other five figures.

Today, more than a century after the first photo was taken, the sidewalk in front of the library is significantly more crowded, as is the skyline in the distance. However, the library has remained standing throughout this time, with hardly an exterior changes in this scene aside from the additional statuary. Over the years, the lions have become probably the most recognizable feature here at the main entrance, and they have since come to represent the library itself, even appearing in its logo. The building itself remains in use as one of the world’s largest libraries, and in 1965 it was designated as a National Historic Landmark because of its architectural and historical significance.

Central Congregational Church, Providence, RI

The Central Congregational Church on Angell Street in Providence, around 1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.


The church in 2016:

Established in 1852, the Central Congregational Church was originally located on Benefit Street, in the western part of the College Hill neighborhood. However, within 40 years the congregation had outgrown their first home, and in 1893 they moved into this building on Angell Street. This area is located on the opposite end of College Hill, furthest from downtown Providence, and was developed as a residential neighborhood in the last decades of the 19th century.

The new church building was designed by Carrère and Hastings, a prominent New York architectural firm who designed a number of prominent Beaux-Arts style buildings at the turn of the 20th century. Designing at the height of the Gilded Age, the firms’s works ranged from grand hotels in Florida, to mansions in Newport and the Berkshires, to the New York Public Library. However, their Renaissance Revival-style design for the Central Congregational Church was among their early commissions.

With yellow brick and plenty of terra cotta, it has a Mediterranean appearance that almost seems out of place in New England, but it has stood here for over 120 years. The original tops of the two towers were damaged in a hurricane in the 1950s, and were replaced with far less ornate ones, but otherwise the church’s exterior appearance has remained the same in both photos. Today, the building is still home to the Central Congregational Church, and it is a contributing property in the Stimson Avenue Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.

Fifth Avenue from 42nd Street, New York City (2)

The view looking south on Fifth Avenue from 42nd Street, with the New York Public Library on the right side, around 1912. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The view in 2016:

This view is similar to an earlier post, with the only difference being that it is a little further back and angled further to the right. The first photo here was probably taken around the same time as the one in this previous post, as they both show the Taft-Sherman campaign banner across Fifth Avenue in the distance. Based on the fact that the trees to the right don’t have many leaves left, the photo was probably taken in the fall of 1912, maybe in late October or the first week of November.

President Taft had actually visited this location about a year and a half earlier, when he presided over the opening ceremonies for the New York Public Library. Today, not much has changed in this exterior view of the library building. Another building still standing from the first photo is the Knox Hat Building, in the center of the photo at the corner of 40th Street. This incredibly ornate building was designed by architect John H. Duncan and completed in 1902 for the Knox Hat Company, who used the first two floors for retail space and had offices in the upper floors. It was later used as a bank, and it is now owned by HSBC. They combined it with the modern glass skyscraper behind it, but the historic building still retains its distinctive appearance.

New York Public Library, New York City (2)

The New York Public Library, seen from the corner of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street around 1908. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The view in 2016:

The first photo here was taken a few years before the one in this earlier post, and it shows the library shortly before its completion. At this point the building had been under construction for about six years, and although the exterior was mostly finished, there was still about three more years of work left to do. The grounds had not been landscaped yet, and instead the library was surrounded by dirt and debris, with a simple brick wall and metal picket fence around the construction site. Also missing from the first photo were the two lion statues that now flank the front steps. Originally nicknamed Leo Astor and Leo Lenox after two of the library’s greatest benefactors, they were designed by sculptor Edward Clark Potter and were installed by the time the library opened in 1911.

New York Public Library, New York City

The main branch of the New York Public Library, seen from the corner of Fifth Avenue and 40th Street around 1911-1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The library in 2019:

The New York Public Library system has its origins in a number of 19th century private libraries, including the Astor Library and the Lenox Library. In 1895, these were consolidated into a single, city-wide public library, but the organization was in need of a suitable building. In the 1890s, the Boston Public Library had set the standard for grand city libraries, and New York City followed suit with this central library, located along Fifth Avenue between 40th and 42nd Streets. This spot had previously been the site of the Croton Distributing Reservoir, a massive 50-foot tall granite structure that was built in 1842 and could hold up to 20 million gallons of drinking water. It was demolished around 1900 and construction on the library began in 1902.

The interior of the library is known for its elegantly-designed public spaces, such as the marble Astor Hall, the walnut-paneled McGraw Rotunda, and the two-block long Main Reading Room, but there is far more to the building than just what is publicly accessible. When the library opened in 1911, its collections were stored in seven levels of stacks underneath the Reading Room, which had 75 miles of shelf space. The library eventually outgrew this space, though, and in the 1980s the stacks were expanded underneath Bryant Park, which is located behind the library.

Since 2008, the building has been officially named after Stephen A. Schwarzman, a businessman who donated $100 million toward renovating and expanding the library. Its exterior has remained largely unchanged from the first photo, but virtually everything else around it has changed in the past century. Today, Midtown Manhattan has grown up around the library, and while the backdrop of the first photo is a sky filled with white puffy clouds, today the view of the sky is now almost entirely obscured by modern skyscrapers that literally overshadow the library.