Book lovers sometimes joke about wanting to live in bookstore or libraries, but in the past officially living in libraries was a reality for many people. Though they are no longer in use as residencies, many of the New York Public Libraries have apartments hidden within them.
When New York City’s Carnegie libraries were built in the early 1900’s, they were similar to a lighthouse; they had to have keepers to watch over them, to guard them, and, most importantly, to make sure that the coal burning fires that heated them never ran out. The keeper or custodian who held these duties often lived in the library with his family. Sharon Washington who lived in one such library apartment with her father, a library custodian for the St. Agnes branch, told the New York Times that “The family mantra was: Don’t let that furnace go out.” Prometheus many have brought fire and knowledge to the Ancient Greeks, but through coal furnaces, Washington and her family brought books to the people of New York City.
Washington’s library apartment was a fairly sizable one. It sat up two flights of twisting, marble stairs, had a large kitchen, and three bedrooms. The walls were made of limestone rather than wood or brick.
With modern heating, resident custodians are no longer needed; the last one retired from the New York Library system in 2006. Even converted into offices or storage spaces, however, the library custodian apartments remain as a reminder that libraries did once (and perhaps still do) need the care and watchful eye of keepers.
Atlas Obscura has done a wonderful examination of the Fort Washington Library’s old apartment, and I encourage you to read through it. There are multiple images of the apartment in its current incarnation, and there is something a bit mournful about it. To have a view of the Hunts Point library apartment, you can also explore the Gothamist’s recent article. Though the spaces aren’t quite haunted by the people who once lived there, the former residents did make their mark.
I’m curious to know if you all have heard of library apartments like these. The concept fascinates me even though the job of a library custodian was not a romantic one, and I’d love to hear from folks who have been inside places like these.
New York Public Library, “Facts for the Public”, New York: New York Public Library, 1921.
New York Public Library, “For Washington Plan”, ca. 1900.
New York Public Library, Detroit Publishing Co., ca. 1910.