Sharon Washington grew up in the St. Agnes branch of the New York Public Library, but Feeding the Dragon covers just a tiny sliver of this century-old building. We decided to investigate the storied history of this literary establishment.
In 1893, the St. Agnes Chapel created a parish library now known as the St. Agnes Library. Originally located on West 91st Street, the library contained a small collection of literature for the blind, in addition to the standard books of the time. The following year, the library was extended to accommodate the Upper West Side’s growing population. It changed its locations a few more times until it found its present home at 444 Amsterdam Avenue in 1906, as part of the New York Public Library system. The St. Agnes library is one of the original sixty-plus libraries funded by Andrew Carnegie, who allocated $5.2 million specifically for the construction of libraries in the city. Overall, Mr. Carnegie helped create 1,600 libraries in the United States, all built near schools, community centers, and other social organizations, as they were meant to become a central part of society.
In October of 2007, a little over a hundred years after its opening, the St. Agnes branch closed for renovations for over two years. In February of 2010, it reopened, keeping many of its historical features with upgraded technological improvements. Originally designed by Babb, Cook, and Willard, the library has a Renaissance Revival facade and a beautiful staircase, both repaired to keep the original look. An accessible elevator was added in a way that maintained the beauty and age of the building. The basement (where Carnegie libraries housed their massive coal furnaces, including the one Sharon Washington’s father was employed to stoke) is now where you’ll find the library’s ongoing book sale.
The St. Agnes Chapel
If you know the Upper West Side, you might be asking yourself, where is this St. Agnes Chapel? Well, that is an interesting story all on its own. In June of 1892, the St. Agnes Chapel opened on West 92nd Street, between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues. It was built by the Parish of the Trinity Church to welcome those who were unable to make it to their main church downtown, with space to seat approximately 1,500 people.
Its gorgeous design included mosaic decorations created by the Tiffany Glass Company, a beautiful organ, and a 185-foot high tower with one of the largest swinging bell peals in North America. By 1943, the Upper West Side neighborhood demographic had changed and there was no longer a need for the chapel, so it was closed and sold to Trinity School. The next year, Trinity School demolished the chapel and created an athletic field. Most New Yorkers don’t know that this Chapel even existed, but by carrying its name, the memory of the St. Agnes chapel lives on through the historic St. Agnes branch of the New York Public Library.