Friday November 04, 2016

Growing up in the hidden apartments of New York City's libraries

A photo of the interior of a now-unused apartment within the Fort Washington branch of the New York Public Library.

A photo of the interior of a now-unused apartment within the Fort Washington branch of the New York Public Library. (Jonathan Blanc/NYPL)

Listen 12:47

Tucked away from the reading rooms and stacks, away from the periodicals and circulation desks, there are mysterious, abandoned apartments within New York City's public libraries. The apartments are now uninhabited, but some still exist as haunting reminders of a way of life long since past.

In the early 1900s, philanthropist and steel magnate, Andrew Carnegie, donated $5.2 million to the city of New York to build new libraries.

At the time, the new libraries were heated with coal, so they needed maintenance staff on site to maintain the furnaces 24/7. The apartments were built to house the maintenance staff.

Thirty Carnegie libraries once had apartments within them, but over the years many of the dwellings have been repurposed. Only 13 of the apartments remain today.

"It just made me want to tell their story because there are so many people who don't know that these places existed." - Sharon Washington

For any booklover, living in a library might sound like a dream. But for Sharon Washington, it was a reality. Her father was a library custodian, and she grew up in three New York public libraries.

As she tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury, she has always loved to watch people's reactions after telling them she grew up in a library.

"It was always with a wide-eyed look of, 'Really, what was that like?'," she says. "It's one of those hidden secrets, and so I loved watching the look on people's faces when I actually told them the story."

                      

The girl who grew up in a library

Washington lived in a library from age 5-12, with most of that time spent at the St. Agnes branch on the Upper West Side. Her family's apartment was on the library's top floor.

St. Agnes branch of New York Public Library

A photograph of the exterior of the St Agnes library, a branch of the New York Public Library. (Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

"My family had keys to the front door of the library," she explains. "We had to go through the library, the main floor, past the reference section on the second floor, past the children's library on the third floor, and then there was a little wooden door with a plate that was marked 'private.'"

"We went through that door and up two more narrow flights of steps and you were in our apartment."

While some of the apartments were grand in appearance, Washington describes their apartment as a very large, beautiful, Upper West Side apartment. There were three bedrooms, a living room large enough to hold a baby grand piano, as well as outdoor space on the roof.

After hours, when the library was closed, Washington had access to the library and all that it held.

"I think part of the reason why I'm an actress today is because it fuelled my imagination. We would create these elaborate play stories," says Washington. "I think that's when I realized how special it was."

Young Sharon Washington

In a photo from the 1970s, Sharon Washington sits at the piano in her family's apartment within the St. Agnes branch of the New York Public Library. ( Jonathan Blanc/NYPL)

Washington also points out that the library was a safe haven during a time when New York was at its crime peak.

"New York at the time was really scary, I mean this is when [there was] Needle Park and there were a lot of drugs and crime, and so having a safe space for me to play and be inside that locked library, where my parents knew I was safe, was a huge relief to them."

                    

The mystery

Washington explains that not many people knew about the library apartments, and that she would often get curious looks from library patrons.

"Carrying groceries upstairs, sometimes people followed. You know, I had to go into that little door that was marked 'private' to get into our apartment," she says. "People would try to come in behind me … I'd try to explain that no, it's the custodial apartment."

Port Washington library apartment

The interior of the now-unused apartment within the Port Washington Branch of the New York Public Library. Though they are uninhabited, 13 of the apartments remain. (Jonathan Blanc/NYPL)

The actress also explains that few of the families who lived in the library apartments knew one another.

"There was no custodian's union meeting where we met each other," says Washington. "It just made me want to tell their story because there are so many people who don't know that these places existed."

                    

Feeding the Dragon

Washington has written a one-woman play called Feeding the Dragon, and it's all about her childhood days, growing up in the St. Agnes library.

On the set, Washington is surrounded by books and bookshelves. She says the title is drawn from her memory of envisioning the library's coal furnace as a dragon.

"I used to love watching [my father] stoke the furnace, because it really was very hard manual labour … but to watch him do that, it was like watching a knight feed a dragon."

Sharon Washington

Sharon Washington on stage in her one-woman play, Feeding the Dragon, her childhood story about growing up in an apartment within the New York Public Library. ( Kristi Jan Hoover/City Theatre Company)

Feeding the Dragon had its world premiere at the City Theatre Company in Pittsburgh on October 28th. Pittsburgh has a tie to Andrew Carnegie as the city where he made most of his money.

The coal furnaces have long since gone from the libraries, and the apartments within have, for the most part, been repurposed as storage spaces or renovated into spaces to be used by library patrons.

Of the 13 remaining apartments, none are inhabited, and most are badly neglected. When the New York Public Library has the funds, those apartments will also likely be renovated and repurposed for modern-day use.

"They're all being utilized for either WiFi routers or storage space or the modern uses of the library," says Washington.

"I think we need to know that history, I want to make sure that history is still there and still alive."