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Van Schaick Free Reading Room / Huntington Free Library | by Emilio Guerra
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Van Schaick Free Reading Room / Huntington Free Library

9 Westchester Square, The Bronx, New York City, New York, United States of America


Built in 1882-83, the Van Schaick Free Reading Room was designed by the prominent architect, Frederick Clarke Withers, and is one of his few surviving works in New York City. The library was a gift from Peter C. Van Schaick, a local philanthropist, to the village of Westchester, twelve years before its annexation to the City of New York as part of what became the Borough of the Bronx. Though Withers is best known for his work in the flamboyant High Victorian Gothic style, his design for the Westchester Square library, which dates to the latter part of his career, illustrates a return to the simpler monochromatic brickwork and asymmetrical massing of his earlier Gothic Revival designs, while the simplicity of form and round-arched tower entrance evoke the contemporary work of H.H. Richardson.


Citizens of the village refused Van Schaick's gift, claiming the cost of building maintenance was too much for the village to absorb, and the library remained vacant until 1890 when railroad tycoon Collis P. Huntington, who lived in neaiby Throggs Neck, purchased, enlarged, and endowed the institution, renaming it after himself. The sympathetic 1890-92 addition, designed by William Anderson, continues the materials and design details of the earlier building, and is distinguished by its robust chimney adomed with terra-cotta tiles. The Huntington Free Library and Reading Room stands today as a small, picturesque survivor of the old village of Westchester; it was the first library built in the area and continues to serve the residents of the east Bronx.



The History of the Van Schaick Free Reading Room/ Huntington Free Library


The Huntington Free Library and Reading Room, at 9 Westchester Square, was designed and built in two stages; the original Van Schaick Free Reading Room was erected in 1882-83 with funds left in the will of Peter C. Van Schaick, a wealthy retired resident of nearby Throggs Neck (located within the area of the village of Westchester), and eight years later the building was enlarged and endowed by Collis P. Huntington.


The story of the library begins on February 24, 1880, with the death of Peter C. Van Schaick, who having pursued a successful career directing the firm of Van Schaick, Adams & Company, New York tobacco merchants, left a will with many generous donations (most were to Episcopal charities). One of these promised that $15,000 from his estate was to be set aside for the erection of a free reading room which was to be donated to the citzens of Westchester upon its completion.'"


The executors of Van Schaick's estate hired the prominent American architect, Frederick Clarke Withers, in 1882. However, attempts to present the library to the citizens failed because the town fathers were unwilling to pay the $1,200-a-year building maintenance cost, deemed to be too much for the village to absorb. Finally, on August 27, 1885, the executors made a final attempt to get the townspeople to accept the building and close the estate, but the gift was rejected unanimously. An editorial addressed the matter several days later:


The action taken by the people of the town of West Chester with reference to the Van Schaick library and reading room shows that it is not always safe for rich and philanthropic men to assume that the gifts for which their wills provide will be accepted. The Executors spent $10,000. in erecting a handsome library building and are ready to spend $5,000 more supplying reading matter and preparing the building for use, but the taxpayers have decided in public meeting . . . they will not take the gift simply because it would cost $1,200 a year to maintain. . .. It would have been money in the pockets of Mr. Van Schaick's heirs if this town meeting had been held before his death. The course taken by the town is a curious example of shortsightedness."


An equally critical editorial note, in theAmerican Architect and Building News, referred to the situation as "One of those singular miscarriages of generosity which occur rather too frequently in this country ..." and recommended that, "When a few more examples have accumulated, it will be worth while, we think for some one to write a book on the abortive charities of this country."'


Nothing was resolved and the building remained vacant for several years. By 1890 Collis Potter Huntington (1821-1900), a capitalist and California railroad magnate whose fortune derived from the Southern Pacific Railroad, had purchased a summer home which he called the "Homestead" (formerly the H.O. Havemeyer estate), at Throggs Neck. Huntington, who had few charitable or social interests outside of his railroad empire, was somehow informed of the Van Schaick Free Reading Room stalemate and decided to take over the project. He purchased the building and enlarged it with a two-and-one-halfLstory rear addition at an estimated cost of $40,000. Additional funds were allocated to endow the library's future operation, without financial obligation to the community.


The Huntington Free Library and Reading Room was finally dedicated with great ceremony on October 7, 1891, and according to a souvenir pamphlet the occasion was "the crowning literary event in the history of old Westchester." Huntington's public address stressed the importance of youth choosing the right path early in life, and expressed hope that the basement gaming room would serve as a community center and "... draw away from the drinking saloons at least a part of the men who frequent them."" He further stated that he had "... prepared this building for all who may desire to enjoy its advantages; but it will no doubt be used mostly by the young . . .," and concluded by saying, "This Library is for all creeds and nationalities — share and share alike."


- From the 1994 NYCLPC Landmark Designation Report

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Taken on December 31, 2011