East 125th Street Library One of Five Original Carnegie Libraries to Receive Full Renovation




In 2021, the New York Public Library enhanced, repaired, and expanded public spaces to the tune of over $335 million in a capital construction program. In addition to the highlighted Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library and upgrades to Gottesman Hall in the iconic Stephen A. Schwarzman Building (including the Polonsky Exhibition of The New York Public Library’s Treasures), the Library spent $37.4 million on 30 other branches serving the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island. Many of these projects were stalled during the pandemic, and have now been restarted. One such project is a complete renovation for five of the original Carnegie Libraries. And one of those five is located at 224 East 125th Street. Below are a few renderings for the new space, including artwork.

224 East 125th Street Carnegie Library Rendering (Cannon Design) nypl

“Following a year of unprecedented isolation, it is so important that public libraries offer New Yorkers inspiring, welcoming, functional, beautiful spaces to gather, learn, and grow,” said Anthony W. Marx, president of The New York Public Library. “With the strong support of New York City and donors such as the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, we have been able to make real progress this year updating and enhancing our extensive footprint of neighborhood branches to ensure they can best serve our communities now in this moment and for generations to come. And there is so much more to come.”

224 East 125th Street Carnegie Library Rendering (Cannon Design) nypl

In 2021, the Library broke ground on the five projects to completely renovate five original Carnegie libraries in high-needs communities. The five Carnegie Libraries are 125th Street, Fort Washington, Hunts Point, Melrose, and Port Richmond.

The projects, which will preserve the historic character of the historic branches while modernizing the interior and maximizing / expanding public space to best serve today’s patrons, are being funded with $100 million from the City’s 10-year capital plan, allocated in 2016. The architecture firms managing the designs (which were informed by community surveys) are Cannon Design (Port Richmond, 125th Street, and Fort Washington) and Mitchell Giurgola (Hunts Point and Melrose). All of the renovations will adhere to Carnegie design standards developed by the Library and Mitchell Giurgola.

Andrew Carnegie, c. 1905, National Portrait Gallery Portrait via Wikipedia

The story behind the Carnegie Libraries is a compelling one. It began with an immigrant by the name of Andrew Carnegie who arriving in America in the 1880s. Through his generosity, a total of 2,509 Carnegie Libraries were built between 1883 and 1929 throughout the world. In the U.S., 1,689 Carnegie-funded libraries were built, and more than half of them are still being used as libraries today.

224 East 125th Street Carnegie Library Rendering (Cannon Design) nypl

Renovation of the 117-year-old 224 East 125th Street Library in East Harlem is underway, with a remodeling of the 14,000-square-foot branch that will include a new elevator, restrooms, technology updates, restoration of the historic facade, accessible ramps and permanent public artwork overseen by the Department of Cultural Affairs Percent for Art, who commissioned artist Diana Schmertz to create artwork for the first and second landings. We were lucky enough to catch her presentation at the recent CB11 meeting. Take a look at what we might expect when the library reopens in early 2024.

Image via the artist, Diana Schmertz, as illustration and conceptual design

The artist was on hand at the meeting, and spoke eloquently about her renderings. In a description of her artwork for the proposal, she explained, “The work to be created for the New York Public Library, 125th Street branch in East Harlem, emphasizes freedom of expansion and access to information as the foundation for creativity, education and enlightenment in American society. The first wall seen upon entering the library will depict multiracial hands pulling each other up through the medium of books.”

Artist, Diana Schmertz conceptual design for NYPL on East 125th Street © Diana Schmertz

“The second floor wall will depict a bird’s eye view of a diverse group of young people reading in a circle in the sky.”

Beautiful conceptual design as permanent installation on second landing of stairwell. © Diana Schmertz.

Interwoven throughout the bottom wall are texts from the First Amendment and the three core documents from the American Library Association: The Library Bill of Rights, Libraries: An American Value, and The Freedom to Read. “

The bottom wall of established social agreements supports the top wall of “dreaming” and discovery. Without the freedom to read and access to information we could not so easily engage in artistic and intellectual contemplation and creation. The text interwoven through the top wall image are poems, quotes and excerpts about the joy and desire to read. The text creates a patch-worked over the different readers showing connectivity through reading. The image is colored where there is text and the remaining areas are black and white, signifying the words bringing the image to life.”

artist, Diana Schmertz, conceptual design for first floor landing of stairwell. © Diana Schmertz.

The process for artist submission by Percent for Art, which began in 2018, is extensive, with an artist selection panel reviewing the work of 28 artists and submissions. The artist selected has an impressive and extensive portfolio of artwork highlighting human rights and women’s rights.

We look forward to the completion of all five of the original Carnegie Libraries. The anticipated date for 224 East 125th Street in East Harlem is early 2024.

Image via NYPL Bookmobile on Twitter!

For all the libraries that are closed and under renovation, NYPL provides access to a New York Public Library Bookmobile! Follow the NYPL Bookmobile on Twitter to see where it will be popping up next.

Take a look-back at Andrew Carnegie and the NYC historic Carnegie Libraries.

If you’re on East 125th Street, pay a visit to Keith Haring ‘Crack is Wack’, the fabulous shop ‘Demolition Depot‘, the site of the 126th Street African Burial Ground, and read more about East 125th Street, a work in progress.