October 11, 2016
My other apartment is a public library
by Chad Felix
Let there be no damn doubt about it: the library is a venue in which to be enchanted, not to mention one of the few places—if not the only place—where the mind might still wander, uninhibited and free of charge, into amazing, unknown worlds. Most often, said enchantment is found on the shelves, in the stacks, in weird out-of-print books and faded old magazines; the vehicle for the journey a stiff chair, a few hours, an open book, an open mind. (Hey, sometimes library-related disenchantment can be found on these shelves, too.)
Other times the library itself is the source of inspiration. As evidenced by Sarah Laskow’s recent piece on Atlas Obscura, library halls, thresholds, cellars, and mysterious doors can be just as thrilling and thought-provoking as any volume in the collection.
To be sure, many such awe-some splendors are in plain sight. Most of us are familiar with the famous Stephen A. Schwartzman Building (one of the New York Public Library’s four research libraries, known to earlier generations as the 42nd Street Library), its marble busts and stairways and columns, its fountains and lions, and the recently reopened Rose Reading Room.
You know, sometimes libraries put on a show. But often, the real sights are hidden away, just outside of sight and mind, unsightly and creepy. I recall, for example, once entering one of the Schwartzman building’s many out-of-commission reading rooms. It was cold and completely empty of books and people, a tall cavern of bare shelves and vacant library ladders. A chilling, unearthly place.
Laskow reveals her own experiences with the hidden worlds of the New York Public Library’s local branches and unearths a bit of weird history while she’s at it:
When these libraries were built, about a century ago, they needed people to take care of them. Andrew Carnegie had given New York $5.2 million, worth well over $100 million today, to create a city-wide system of library branches, and these buildings, the Carnegie libraries, were heated by coal. Each had a custodian, who was tasked with keeping those fires burning and who lived in the library, often with his family.
Ahem. Families used to live in apartments in the branches of the New York Public Library in order to keep the coal fire burning. Your friend that insists, I could live here, every time you go to the library — well, a hundred years ago, that could have been within the realm of possibility, if your friend was an aspiring library custodian. Nope, it’s not a metaphor: it’s a fact. (It’s also a perfect metaphor for the enduring importance and struggle of the public library. Sad!) In her piece, Laskow explores these library apartments, of which there are only thirteen left, documenting their disrepair with photos of peeling paint, cracked brickwork, and “death chutes” that must be seen to be believed.
The Fort Washington Library apartment, Laskow notes, “doesn’t feel haunted, exactly, but lonely and left behind.”
In that back bedroom, a small, dirty mirror is still hanging on the wall, at eye level. If it were my room, this where I might stand to apply mascara. Two dusty decals are still stuck to the door: one for the Muppet Movie, one that warns others to “Knock Before Entering.”
In the kitchen, where the walls are covered with a stone-mimicking wallpaper, there are other remnants of previous lives — a Polaroid of a Christmas tree and a pirate-themed card, addressed to David J from William J, that reads: “You’re a real treasure to me.”
Okay, so maybe not haunted. Maybe. But definitely creepy and definitely fun to think about. Seriously, do check out the pictures.
Really though, the apartments outlived their original function when in the seventies and eighties the apartments adopted alternate heating methods. Library custodians retired and the spaces were abandoned as seen in the photographs. Today, Laskow notes, the spaces are considered “a waste, almost an embarrassment.” So one-by-one, the “apartments” are being converted into public recreational areas — which is smart, given the utter scarcity of space on the isle of Manhattan. Back to the stacks, then.
Chad Felix is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House, and a former bookseller.