Once an 1880s public library, now a private home in the West Village

When you pass the three-story red-brick beauty at 251 West 13th Street—with its elegant arched windows and Dutch-style gabled roofline—you just know it was built for something special.

That special purpose was a noble one in Gilded Age New York. The building, near Eighth Avenue and at the end of Greenwich Avenue, served as a free public library—one of the city’s first.

The story of what became known as the Jackson Square Library began in 1879, when a teacher and other women affiliated with Grace Church formed the New York Free Circulating Library.

New York City was already home to many fine research libraries, such as the Astor Library (now the Public Theater) on Lafayette Place. But in 1879, these libraries were largely private and didn’t lend books.

“The New York Free Circulating Library was established to serve every New Yorker, especially the poor, and to allow them to not only read a wide range of literature, but bring it home and share it with their families,” states Village Preservation. 

The library in an undated photo

The original library room founded by the Grace Church group held just 500 books and was only open two hours a week. But according to Village Preservation, “the free public reading room was so popular there were often lines around the block.”

This is where a member of the Vanderbilt family comes in. George Washington Vanderbilt II, a grandson of Commodore Vanderbilt and brother of the socially prominent W.K. Vanderbilt and Cornelius Vanderbilt II, decided to continue his family’s tradition of philanthropy by building and stocking a free circulating library for the people of New York City.

Another undated photo, but note the remodeling of the neighboring house’s front door

“The youngest of eight children, [George Vanderbilt] was a quiet person with a strong interest in culture and the life of the mind, who had created and catalogued his own collection of books beginning at age 12,” states Village Preservation. “The growing desire for a free circulating library in New York was just the sort of worthy project that captured the bibliophile’s imagination.”

Vanderbilt tapped architect Richard Morris Hunt (who also designed Vanderbilt’s breathtaking North Carolina estate, Biltmore). In 1888, the Jackson Square Library, with more than 6,000 books, opened to readers.

The Adult Reading Room in the 1930s

“The walls of the library on the ground floor are tinted a robin’s egg blue, while the book shelves and other woodwork are of walnut, which sets off the bright bindings of the books,” wrote The New York Times in a preview the library’s interior. A second-floor reading room was described as “light and airy.” To become a member of the library, applicants had to be at least “twelve years of age and able to give proper reference.”

After the New York Public Library system formed in 1895, the Jackson Square Library continued to operate as a NYPL branch. By the early 1960s, the library was “decommissioned,” per Village Preservation. The Jefferson Market Library on Sixth Avenue and 11th Street took over as the NYPL branch for Greenwich Village in the 1970s.

George Washington Vanderbilt II by John Singer Sargent, with book in hand

It’s hard to fathom, but after it closed, the Jackson Square Library was headed for the wrecking ball. In 1967, painter, sculptor, and performance artist Robert Delford Brown acquired it for $125,000, according to a New York Times story in 2000. That saved the former library, which had hosted notable patrons like James Baldwin, Gregory Corso, and W.H. Auden, among others.

Brown gave the building a “radical renovation,” according to the Times, and the results weren’t necessarily successful. The former library was purchased in the 1990s by TV writer and producer Tom Fontana. Intending to use it as a residence and work space, Fontana brought 251 West 13th Street back to its Gilded Age grandeur, at least on the exterior—making it a delightful sight for passersby.

[Third, fourth, and fifth photos: NYPL; sixth photo: Wikipedia, by John Singer Sargent]

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21 Responses to “Once an 1880s public library, now a private home in the West Village”

  1. Greg Says:

    I’m a bit confused. The Times story “says too much of the original building had been destroyed in Rudolph’s renovation. There was no way, for example, to reconstruct the facade without crushing expense. . . . A year before he irreparably altered the facade, the three-year-old Landmarks Commission had decided to make Greenwich Village a historic district. Its lawyers asked Rudolph in writing to modify his plans, though they could not yet insist on it legally. But Rudolph let the sledgehammers swing days before the law was passed.”

    And yet the facade appears unchanged to my eyes. What am I missing?

  2. burkemblog Says:

    Fascinating article. That may be the least flattering Sargent portrait I’ve ever seen!

  3. Peter Weiss Says:

    What is the building to the left of the library building and when was it built?

    Peter

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  4. Michael Leddy Says:

    I have to laugh — once on a visit to NY I took a photo of the above-door ornament on that substation. I never thought to pay attention to the building. So thanks!

  5. Timothy Gillane Says:

    What’s that somewhat monolithic building next door?

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      It’s the IND Electrical Substation, built in 1930. See the reply to Peter Weiss’ comment above.

  6. Michael Leddy Says:

    The building next to it. Sorry —typing on the phone.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      It’s the IND electrical substation, built in 1930. I included a photo of it in the reply to Peter Weiss’ comment above.

  7. Nicole Verity Says:

    I went to a party at Tom’s gorgeous building in the early 2000s. What a beautiful place!! It made me covetous but I was just in love with the space!!

  8. countrypaul Says:

    In the library’s period of eclipse, so to speak, the Museum of the City of New York notes: “It later became the Great Building Crack-Up and international headquarters of the First National Church of Exquisite Panic, Inc., when artist Robert Delford Brown moved there in 1970.” It would seem that your comment about th results “not necessarily being successful” was being very kind. Do photos of that period exist? Bringing the building back from that must have been an overwhelming project!

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I didn’t find any photos of that era in the building’s history, but Mr. Fontana describes it as in pretty bad shape when he purchased it in the 1990s. The NYT story linked to his name paints the picture!

  9. Nicholas T Ganz Says:

    This was the library of my childhood. Living at 2 Horatio street it was where is discovered books. The picture of the reading room look exactly as I remember it in the early 1960’s. Thank you

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      You’re welcome—always good to hear from readers who remember the library and also this neck of the West Village. 2 Horatio Street is a lovely building.

  10. David H Lippman Says:

    I lived at 13th Street and 7th Avenue as a kid, and I vividly remember going to that library when I was a VERY small child. then I walked by it every day when I came home from IS 70 as a middle-schooler.

    It was and is a lovely building.

  11. Punto Says:

    Thanks for this post.

    As a retired NYPL librarian, it was primarily of interest as it told me a lot about a former branch location that I was unaware of, since it was superseded by Jefferson Market before my time.

    Though it is taking a bit of a tangent, I want to mention that I found the description of the buildings near the corner of 13th and Greenwich Ave. particularly interesting since it brought back memories of walking down that block dozens (probably more like hundreds) of times on my way to the Integral Yoga Institute Grocery Store a few doors east of 251 (I think at 229). I was always aware of the sub-station and its monolithic, almost threatening, presence every time I went past it, having just emerged from the 14th Street A/C/E/L IND station a hundred yards or so away. Though the building with the grocery was owned by the Integral Yoga Institute itself, they determined that, sadly, being undercut by Whole Foods, Fresh Direct and other big volume players was making their sort of operation unworkable. Their closing maybe five years or so back ended my regular excursions there on the A train, coming down from the last stop at 207th Street to stock up on all the bulk and/or organic things not carried in my local C-Town. A grocery that stocked those items made the trip to W. 13th worth it.

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