This stunning Lafayette Street theater was the city’s first free public library in the 1850s

In the first half of the 19th century, John Jacob Astor was the richest man in New York City—and also the richest man in America.

Arriving in postwar Gotham in the 1780s, Astor made his fortune in fur before he turned his attention to real estate. He began buying parcel after parcel of cheap, eventually quite profitable land across the city (earning the nickname “New York’s landlord” for his shrewd deals and strict leasing policies).

Astor House, Astor Place, The Astor Theater—all were named for this German immigrant and Astor family patriarch. In the 1830s, he also developed today’s Lafayette Street as an exclusive enclave known as Lafayette Place. Many of the city’s richest families resided inside the columned row houses of LaGrange Terrace in the decades before the Civil War.

Toward the end of his life, however, Astor was thinking of a way to give something back to New York. “He had vague notions as to how best to spend the money, but in the [1830s] some friends first gave him the idea of establishing a library,” explained the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in a 1911 article.

A library would have been a novel idea at the time. Though rich New Yorkers had their own private libraries, public libraries didn’t exist in Gotham yet. True, the New York Society Library, established in the late 18th century, was open to anyone…but only if they could afford the subscription, that is.

So Astor set aside an estimated $400,000 in his will (with sums of money already allocated for books, construction, and other costs). The idea was that once he passed away, a free public library would be built on Astor-owned land on Lafayette Place.

Astor’s wishes were carried out after he died in 1848. A board of trustees including Washington Irving, Joseph Green Cogswell (a teacher who became the library’s first librarian), and Astor’s son William B. Astor (father-in-law of Gilded Age society swan Caroline Astor) hired an architect and began purchasing books, temporarily renting space on Bond Street to await the completion of the new building, according to the New York Public Library.

In January 1854, the original Astor Library opened its doors (above drawing). “The trustees of the Astor Library have erected a noble monument to the rich old gentleman whose name it bears,” the New York Times wrote in April of that year. “They have built a handsome house in a handsome place, and so contributed to adorn the city.”

The Times went on to note that this “free” library really isn’t free—in the sense that the books can’t be taken out of the building (it was intended to be a reference library) and no one under age 16 is permitted inside. Another newspaper compared it favorably to the great libraries of Europe, then likened it to “a kind of literary museum” because the books have to stay in the building.

Despite the reviews, the library found many fans. “The Astor Library was open to the public during the day on weekdays and Saturdays,” wrote the NYPL. “Most readers reported to a main desk to request books which were then paged from the shelves. Some readers, usually scholars, were granted the privilege of being alcove readers, and they had full access to alcoves of books devoted to specific topics.”

A few years after opening, the library expanded (fourth photo, above), and it grew again in 1881 (fifth illustration, above), with space to hold more than 400,000 volumes. But even with the Astor name and fortune behind it, the library ran into financial troubles.

In the 1890s, it combined with the Lenox Library, endowed in 1870 by James Lenox, and the Tilden Trust (not a library yet, but a fund intended to establish one). The combination became the basis for the New York Public Library, consisting of the main library beside Bryant Park followed by neighborhood branches.

“The Astor building finally closed to readers on April 15, 1911, shortly before the opening of the new Central Building on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street,” the NYPL noted.

The Brooklyn Eagle was wistful about the closing (below photo, books being taken out of the shuttered library). “Nearly all the great men of Europe who have visited America during the past half century have paid a visit to the Astor Library. Washington Irving was almost a daily visitor…Longfellow and Hawthorne spent many hours there pouring over the reference volumes….”

“The building stood almost in the country when it was opened, but of late years the old colonial houses by which it was surrounded have disappeared and it has become shut in by huge skyscrapers,” the Eagle wrote.

The Astor Library may have shut its doors—but the building that housed those handsome volumes and reading alcoves began a second life. It was purchased in 1920 by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society to house Jewish refugees, then faced demolition in the 1960s.

Since 1967, it’s been the home of the Public Theater, a nonprofit performance space led by theatrical producer Joseph Papp. “When I came into that building, it was in ruins, it was falling apart,” he said in a PBS interview. Today, it’s arguably the most magnificent structure on Lafayette Street.

[Second image: Wikipedia; third, fourth, fifth, and sixth images: NYPL Digital Collections; seventh image: Brooklyn Daily Eagle]

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14 Responses to “This stunning Lafayette Street theater was the city’s first free public library in the 1850s”

  1. Ann Haddad Says:

    Thanks, Esther! The Astor Library, although “free and open to the public,” was criticized for its hours, which essentially barred the working and lower classes from admittance (in those days the work week was 6 days). Whether this was a deliberate effort to limit usage to the elite is not clear.

  2. Benjamin P. Feldman Says:

    Requests from the stacks even today produce hoary volumes bearing the bookplate of the “Astor Lenox Tilden Library” therein

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Wow, they still circulate these books from the 19th century?

      • Benjamin P. Feldman Says:

        They are available for use in the Reading Room, not for circulation. I have requisitioned the strangest stuff from the depths of the stacks and the NJ warehouse over the years. We really should have a lunch together. If interested, let me know how I can call you. feldman_benjamin at hotmail.com

  3. 40buick Says:

    Another fascinating piece of history of th

  4. andrewalpern Says:

    This building is the poster child for the reuse and rejuvenation of old architectural treasures. That sort of effort takes time, patience, imagination, and money, but it is well worth the effort.

  5. Carolyn Says:

    Fascinating story that celebrates a building that was able to survive to the present. Not lost! Appreciate your emails and the work you do very much.

  6. Julia Park Tracey Says:

    NICE.

    The Bereaved: Historical Fiction forthcoming from Sibylline Press Fall 23 Julia Park Tracey (she/her) historical fiction | literary nonfiction *** Facebook http://www.facebook.com/juliaparktracey Post juliaparktracey https://post.news/juliaparktracey Instagram @juliaparktracey https://www.instagram.com/juliaparktracey/

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  7. velovixen Says:

    The Public Theatre could hardly be a more fitting use of the building that housed the first Public Library!

    Great building. And, yes, I have attended plays in it. Interestingly, the sight lines and acoustics are quite good: something one might not expect in a library space.

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