Morgan Library and Museum
Courtesy of the Morgan Library and Museum.

New York City libraries are renowned for their elegant architecture, vast collections of classical and contemporary works, and quiet study places within the bustling city. Many of the city’s more than 200 libraries, however, were originally built as old residences, courthouses, club gathering spaces, and even prisons. As you read in the New York Society Library, you may be learning in the former master bedroom of the opulent Rogers family. At the Grolier Club, you may even scan books on the shelf that leads to a secret door opening to a spiral staircase. Read on for the secret histories of 10 of the oldest libraries in New York City!

1. The New York Society Library (1754)

The Whitridge Room in the New York Society Library
The Whitridge Room in the New York Society Library. Courtesy of the New York Society Library,

The New York Society Library, founded in 1754, was the first New York City library open to the public. Originally built for the affluent Rogers family, the library opened in a room in the old City Hall with a subscription system open to everyone. Until the founding of the public library system in 1895, The New York Society Library was referred to as “the City Library.” Though the library is widely considered the oldest in the city, The New York Society Library’s physical location shifted multiple times until it settled on its present location, 53 East 79th St., in 1937.

It is believed that the Rogers family lived in the current building, a large landmarked Italianate townhouse constructed in 1917, until 1935. Most of the reading rooms have since been repurposed. For example, the Whitridge Room was the former master bedroom and the Hornblower Room was the former maids’ quarters. Today, the library hosts many events for children, teenagers, and adults alike, such as lectures, writing classes, and reading groups.