At Leonard and Broadway, a Library Once Drew the City’s Intellectual Elite

The former library's reading room with its imposing corinthian columns.

Aug. 07, 2019

One of the most venerable institutions in our city is the New York Society Library, which is still going strong after more than 250 years.

Founded Downtown in 1754 by a group of prominent citizens to serve the reading needs of the public as well as students at the recently founded King’s College (the ancestor of Columbia), it has counted George Washington, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton among its eminent users.

Through the years it has occupied a number of sites in Manhattan, and one of its way stations was in Tribeca.

From 1840 to 1852 the library was located in a building on the east side of Broadway at Leonard Street. In the picture shown here—which happens to be the earliest known daguerreotype of a New York street scene—it is the building in the center with a columned facade and a pointed roof.

It was a handsome and well-appointed structure, featuring a carpeted reading room whose tables were, in the words of one observer, “covered with rich food for the literary appetite.” On a floor above were rooms that could be “used as conversation parlors for those authors who desire to pursue their investigations with their authorities around them, or who wish to make new books on old Burton’s recipe, ‘as apothecaries make new mixtures, by pouring out of one vessel into another.’” The library was a prominent stopping point for literary notables.

In 1842 the poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered six lectures there. Among those attending were the newspaper editor Horace Greeley, who wrote that the famed transcendentalist’s remarks were “the noblest and best we ever listened to on any subject.” The reporter and poet Walt Whitman described the audience as “…mostly blue stockings; several interesting young men with Byron collars, doctors, and parsons; Grahamites and abolitionists; sage editors, a few of whom were taking notes; and all the other species of literati.”

In 1845 the lecturer was Edgar Allan Poe, who talked on “Poets and Poetry of America” and used the occasion, the New York Herald reported, to lambaste all those who failed to appreciate writers.

Many in the audience, the Herald said, “appeared to wince under the severity of his remarks, which were not a few. The newspaper press, the monthly magazines, and the quarterlies came in alike for a meed of his censure, as being venal, ignorant, and entirely unfit to form a judgement on the most humblest productions of the writers of this country—of course, his own included.”

Such doings helped bolster the library’s reputation, and it became something of a tourist attraction. Among those whose names were entered in its Visitors Book during these years were Charles Dickens, Prince Bonaparte of France (soon to become Napoleon III), Daniel Webster, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Martin Van Buren. And it continued to be used by writers. One who visited the institution for research purposes was a young New Yorker named Herman Melville.

But these were also years when the city was expanding rapidly uptown, and in 1852 the library decided it had to move once again. Starting in 1856 it was located a mile north at 67 University Place. Finally, in 1937 it moved for the last time to its present home on 79th Street, where it continues to flourish.

The columned building at Leonard Street is long gone. On the site today is the former New York Life Insurance building, a landmark popularly known as the Clocktower Building, now undergoing an extensive restoration and residential conversion. 

This article originally appeared in the June 2006 print edition of The Tribeca Trib.