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BY TERESE LOEB KREUZER | Standing at a lectern in the Landmarks Preservation Commission hearing room on April 2, Judith Prigal recalled her father. She was testifying at a hearing on whether the Seward Park branch library at 192 East Broadway on the Lower East Side should be landmarked.
Prigal said that she had a photo of her father, an immigrant from Russia, taken in 1918 standing in front of the library, holding a large book.
“A 16-year-old with no knowledge of English, he and his siblings found the library to be a haven where they could study away from their overcrowded apartment,” she said. She went on to say that there were undoubtedly “scores of immigrant children who owe their successful education to their association with this library.” She called it “a neighborhood treasure” and said that even as a child, it impressed her.
“It seemed more important, more substantial than its mostly nondescript surroundings,” she recalled.
The freestanding, four-story building made of red brick trimmed with limestone, is on the eastern edge of Seward Park. One of the 67 libraries in New York City financed by industrialist Andrew Carnegie, it was designed by the firm of Babb, Cook & Welch and opened on Nov. 11, 1909. It once had an open-air reading room on the roof that provided tranquility and greenery, so different from the tenements where most of those who used the library lived. Five of the Carnegie libraries had similar reading rooms. Seward Park’s is the only one that remains in a building in active use as a library.
The library is already listed on the National Register of Historic Places. If the Landmarks Preservation Commission approves designation, the building would become an official New York City landmark as well.
No one who spoke at the hearing opposed this idea. However, many urged that the commission go beyond landmarking this one building and landmark all of the city’s remaining Carnegie libraries.
They were endowed in 1901 when industrialist Andrew Carnegie donated $5.2 million to the city to build branch libraries in the five boroughs. Of Carnegie’s 26 libraries in Manhattan, 22 remain, with 20 of them still functioning as libraries.
But New York City’s library branches are under siege. Many of the older ones are housed in handsome buildings that are now on coveted pieces of real estate and in some cases, too small for present uses or in need of repairs.
Pressed for funds, the New York Public Library, which covers Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island, and the Brooklyn Public Library system have already sold some branches to developers or are in discussions to do so. In 2011, the Queens Public Library system tore down its Elmhurst branch, a Carnegie building, and is replacing it with a larger structure.
The Seward Park branch library is in no imminent danger. But as Joyce Mendelsohn remarked in her testimony, “Only a limited number of Carnegie libraries citywide are protected by landmark designation. I urge the commission to designate the Seward Park branch,” she said, “and to calendar all of the remaining unprotected Carnegie libraries to preserve these vital links with the past for future generations.”
“When I first heard that the Seward Park library was being considered for landmark status, I was surprised that the library was not already landmarked,” said Rima Finzi-Strauss in her testimony. “Of course, the library would easily get landmark status, I thought, because, after all, it is a Carnegie library. But it only took a little online research for me to realize that there is, indeed, potentially a lot to worry about. Carnegie libraries have been torn down around the United States. Locally, Brooklyn Public Library will likely demolish several historic Carnegie branches.”
Finzi-Strauss said that if the Seward Park library isn’t landmarked now, it, too, could succumb to “the tremendous real estate changes happening in our immediate neighborhood. We cannot assume that anything will stay the same unless it is officially protected in perpetuity.”
The Seward Park Branch Library still serves a large number of immigrants. No longer predominantly Jewish, today the throngs who use the library are likely to be a mixture of Jews, Hispanics, African-Americans and Asians.
Eric Mandelbaum, his wife, Yuko Murase, and their son, Kai, 9, are among those who use the Seward Park branch. All of them testified.
Mandelbaum said that the Lower East Side is still an immigrant community and that New York City is “the most linguistically diverse place on Earth, home to over 800 languages.” He said that his wife, who is Japanese, studies Mandarin alongside their son at the library.
“The point is, Seward Park library is the epicenter for immigrants and language learners for Hebrew, Yiddish, Mandarin, Spanish and the like,” said Murase. “Let’s not forget one of my and my son’s needs — English, too.”
Kai Mandelbaum said that a lot of his classmates are immigrants.
“Libraries are really important to them,” he said. “I know that the [Seward Park] library is not going to get knocked down right now, but I think we should landmark it now so that nobody will try to knock it down later.”