A Landmark Library Lives On
It might be temporarily closed for renovations, but when the Ottendorfer Branch of the New York Public Library opened in 1884 it was New York City’s first free public library, and was designated a New York City landmark on September 20, 1977.
The three-story gem at 135 Second Avenue was designed by German-born architect William Schickel, and combines Queen Anne and neo-Italian Renaissance styles with an exterior ornamented with terracotta putti. The branch was a gift of Oswald Ottendorfer, the owner of the New-Yorker Staats-Zeitung newspaper. During that era the neighborhood was known as Kleindeutschland (“Little Germany”) and had a population of over 150,000 people of German descent. Around half of the 8,000 original books were in German, with the other half in English.
From the 1977 designation report, the Ottendorfer Library is described as follows:
The Ottendorfer Library is the oldest branch library in Manhattan and one of the earliest buildings in the city constructed specifically as a public library. Designed in 1883-1884 by the German-born architect William Schickel, it is a particularly interesting example of late Victorian architecture exhibiting elements of both the neo-Italian Renaissance and the Queen Anne styles. Built in conjunction with the German Dispensary, now the Stuyvesant Poly-clinic, next door, the library was the gift of Anna and Oswald Ottendorfer, German-American philanthropists who concerned themselves with the welfare of the German population centered on the Lower East Side in the mid to late 19th century. The juxtaposition of the library and the clinic building is by no means coincidental. Rather it reflects the 19th-century philosophy, particularly influential in Germany, of developing the individual both physically and mentally. Ottendorfer’s desire was to help to uplift both the body and the mind of his fellow Germans in the United States (“dem Korpen und dem Geistenzuhelfen”).
Today the library is one of the oldest branches of the New York Public Library, and serves as a reminder of the enduring architectural legacy of Kleindeutschland, which is still visible around the East Village.
Currently, the 8,000-square-foot library is closed to facilitate the installation of a fire alarm and sprinkler system. The project is expected to take six months with an anticipated reopening in early 2019. Library goers can use the Tompkins Square Library, another local landmark, and all items on hold at Ottendorfer Library will be delivered to the Tompkins Square Library until the renovation is completed.