I started a new audio book yesterday, The Lions of Fifth Avenue by Fiona Davis. I may have read the book summary when I added it to my TBR, but in all honesty if I did, I can’t remember it. It popped up on a list, or email, or online article, or something a few weeks ago to spark my memory that I wanted to read it. I liked the cover, so I put it on (a Libby) hold, which came up this week. Anyway, I’m rambling. I started it yesterday. I almost squealed with delight when I heard the book dedication: “For librarians everywhere.” You guys. This book takes place in the main branch of the New York Public Library (NYPL).
Not only does it take place in the NYPL, but a family LIVES in the NYPL. There’s a secret apartment in the library for the superintendent and his family. This sparked another link in my brain. I remembered reading about this. Secret apartments in libraries. This is the ultimate book-lovers dream. Imagine, being able to explore the library when it’s empty. Quiet. Take any book you want off the shelves and find a cozy nook to read.
So today, instead of reading (or getting any legit to-do’s checked off my list), I find myself down an internet rabbit hole. Was it just the main branch that had a family living there? (No, they all did!) What were these apartments like? What would it be like to grow up there? (Also in my search I’ve been sidetracked. How awesome are Patience and Fortitude, the NYC Library Lions? Did you know they have bookends of the pair?)
What did these apartments look like?
These apartments haven’t been lived in for decades. Most of them have been converted or renovated into useable library space. Per this Atlas Obscura article (and tour of the Fort Washington branch apartment) published in 2016, there are only 13 apartments left. (Originally there were 30 library apartments.) The following is basically a video tour of that Atlas Obscura article. So cool to walk through that abandoned space!
Here’s a peek Inside One of the NYPL’s Secret Abandoned Apartments (specifically the Hunts Point Library), with 16 photos of the space.
What was it like to grow up in a library apartment?
What about growing up in a library? Check out Life Behind the Stacks: The Secret Apartments of New York Libraries to read more about life at both the New York Society Library and the NYPL’s Schwarzman Building – which is the apartment where my current read takes place.
One of the best articles I’ve found is this interview with actor Sharon Washington. At the top (right under the first picture) is the link to listen to the audio. So fun to hear this history from a child’s perspective. Now I want to listen to her one-act play Feeding the Dragon.
Superintendent Apartment in the NYPL Schwarzman Building
As for the inquiry which started this whole browsing episode, the apartment at the main NYPL branch, there is not much information. There don’t appear to be any pictures of this awesome historic artifact. I haven’t been able to find any floor plans. I’m also not sure on the actual facts. I’ve seen some conflicting statements: This fact sheet on the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building from the NYPL states that it was an eight room apartment and that the original superintendent raised two children here. But then the New York Times article I link to below says it was a seven room apartment, and Young John had a brother and a sister.
One of the most interesting finds is this article from the New York Times, dated June 20, 1949. John Fedeler (referred to as “Young John”) grew up in the library while his father was the superintendent (1920 – 1940), and John himself was superintendent then until he left the position in 1949. It seems that the Fedeler family was moved out of the apartment in 1941because the library needed the space for a mimeograph room, telephone switchboard, and smoking rooms. (I wonder what these rooms are now? Surely they have morphed to another use.)
I did find this great (but brief!) history and tour of the New York Public Library. What a space.
Did you know about these secret library apartments? Would you live in a library if you could? I’ll keep dreaming about this as I continue to read The Lions of Fifth Avenue, which started this whole detour in the first place.