St. Agnes Library: Back in Business

If you’ve been pondering the question: just what does it take to make a New Yorker happy, your search is over. At least according to library clerk Margaret Fields, who’s happy to reenact what she heard while standing on the steps of the newly reopened St. Agnes branch of the New York Public Library.

"Oh my God! The library is open! The lady on the radio said the library is open," she laughs.

It’s been closed since October of 2007, and the Upper West Siders coming by are ready to have their library back.

"Well, that’s very exciting," says one woman, who pauses on the steps to watch the doors swing open.

New York Public Library employees Anne Coriston and Caryl Soriano would agree with that assessment. They’re standing in the doorway of St. Agnes as part of an impromptu welcoming committee, and when a man wanders in the door, they want feedback. And they want it now.

"What do you think?" one asks.

"I haven't thought anything yet! I'm just happy to be here," he replies. "I haven't even looked inside yet."

This pleases Ms. Coriston. "Good! And you're happy already -- that's a good sign."

"Come on," he says. "I've been waiting a while!"

So has Paul LeClerc, the president and chief executive officer of the New York Public Library. He’s here to walk me through the overhauled space. Like many home renovation projects, it began smaller -- and then the to-do list kept growing. He says: “This project actually began as something more modest -– basically bringing the library facility into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, so that meant an elevator and a ramp. And then it grew from there. It turned out that wasn’t going to be enough.”

NYPL President Paul LeClerc.

It needed more -- a whole lot more. About $9.75 million worth, with the bulk of the funds coming from the City Council. Dr. LeClerc characterizes the work this way: “I would see this, as we say in New York, as a gut rehab.”

The library’s roots stretch ten blocks north to 91st Street, where in 1893 it was established as a lending library in the Saint Agnes Chapel. By 1906 it was in its current location on Amsterdam Avenue and 81st Street, built as part of Andrew Carnegie’s $5.2 million gift to establish a branch library system in New York.

And now even though there’s a modern heating and air conditioning system, as well as wireless Internet access and dozens of computers, the library’s history is still very much a part of St. Agnes. Neighborhood resident Maren Waxenberg appreciates that. “The fact that they preserved elements of the original building, like the original entrance, they didn’t just scrap all that terrific granite that was there, they saved it,” she says. “And the wrought iron staircase going up--brilliant! Fixing it up without totally tearing all the charm out.“

Speaking of the central staircase: The library took care to preserve those wrought iron hooks that stick up on the banister. Dr. LeClerc says they’re one of the hallmarks of a Carnegie library — and they have a timeless purpose.

“A hundred years later, it’s still thwarting children from sliding,” he says.

The original stairway.

But children were very much in mind during the redesign process. “Historically we’ve put children on second floor,” he says. “In this instance, the person who was then the director of the libraries said no, let’s make this feel like their library, and put it on the first floor so that they’re centered here. And since we have so many children in our branches after school, we want this to be a destination point for kids.”

As well as still relevant. People may bemoan the death of reading. But for when you’re looking for work, or need a place to check your email, or can’t afford to drop $25 on a hardcover book, the public library becomes pretty important. Dr. LeClerc says this is reflected in the numbers.

“Last calendar year, in the three library systems, there were 40 million visits to libraries. I don't think there's any other city in the world that has people using its libraries as much as New Yorkers do.”

Because while people now use libraries for everything from checking email to looking for work, sometimes even the head of the New York Public Library just has a simple question that he needs answered. “Well, I have to find out before the grand opening is actually who St. Agnes was, and what her claim to sainthood was,” Dr. LeClerc admits. “She probably suffered some sort of horrible martyrdom.”

The second floor: adults and young adults.

He can look it up at the library.

The official St. Agnes Library reopening celebration is taking place on Thursday, February 11, starting at 11 a.m. For more information, go to the New York Public Library site.