Westchester Square in the East Bronx is slated to get a gleaming, glass-walled 12,000 square-foot library and an outdoor performance shell for plays and concerts. If all goes as planned, a deal between the New York Public Library and the private Huntington Free Library is allowing both to expand their services in the area.
The 125-year-old Huntington at 9 Westchester Square has agreed on selling half of its lot to the city for the construction of a new public library branch that will replace the current branch on Glebe Avenue. If approved, the library’s addition, which once housed the Museum of the American Indian, will be torn down to make way for the new branch. Construction is expected to begin in 2017 and open two to three years after.
Supporting the land sale, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr also placed emphasis on the programming the libraries offered. “The measure of a great city is its public library system,” he stated in his Land Use Review recommendation. “Together, these two library systems offer exceptional access to knowledge and programming for all out East Bronx citizens.”
The half of the Huntington Free Library that is planned to be torn down to make way for a New York Public Library branch.
Diaz’s office is allocating $1.8 million for the new public library, which will also draw $4.4 million from the mayor’s office and $12.3 million from City Council funds. The New York Public Library says it is too early to understand the number of jobs the project will create, and the city has not yet announced what will become of the current Westchester Square branch that the new building will replace.
The land is going for less than a million dollars, said the Huntington President Thomas Casey, though the New York Public Library said the deal was still being discussed. And there are already plans for that money. Plans have been drawn for a wheelchair ramp that would make the 125-year-old-building accessible. An art installation made of colored stainless steel cables suspending 3D-printed models of historical Bronx buildings would separate the ramp from the neighboring building. Behind the library, a small stage would transform the backyard into a performance space, Casey said.
These changes reflect the evolving role of libraries in the community. According to the Huntington, when it opened in 1891, it was the only library available for public use in the Bronx. But that didn’t mean it functioned like the libraries we consider public today. “When we opened up, books were so valuable, you wouldn’t check out a book and bring it home,” said Casey. In fact, its collections, which specialize in Bronx and Native American history, were so valuable that the Smithsonian attempted to take over part of its inventory in a 1989 lawsuit.
Huntington won the lawsuit, but spent a large portion of its endowment doing so, according to Casey and Cornell University. As funds subsequently ran low and the public interest in a non-circulating inventory waned, the library had to shift focus away from the collection it fought so hard to protect. The library gave stewardship of its Native American collection to Cornell University, became open only by appointment (it is now operated by volunteers), and started looking for new ways to make money and bring in people.
The library began pivoting its services from providing books to providing a space. It has begun showing art exhibits and opening its space to performers. Two recent productions have included a play about African American pilots and a hip hop night. And its historic facade has been an asset. Fans of the HBO drama Boardwalk Empire may recognize it—an episode from season three of the show was shot there, though HBO did not confirm the how much they paid for the location.
And Casey said the library began looking into selling the land to someone who could aid in the Huntington’s vision of becoming a community hub where people would spend their leisure hours reading, learning, and having fun. “People came out, wanted a school for teaching cooking, a charter school, a nursing home. We didn’t want any of those things,” he said. “When the public library approached us, we said, ‘What a perfect partnership.’”