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NYC’s Oldest Library on East 79th Street: A Historical Bombshell Uncovered

The New York Society Library

The New York Public Library might be the city’s most famous, but did you know that it’s not the oldest? That is an honor that actually belongs to the New York Society Library (NYSL), which since 1937 has been housed inside a five-story Italianate townhouse at 53 East 79th Street (between Park and Madison avenues). It boasts a collection of nearly 300,000 books and counting.

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We just took a tour of the NYSL–including a peek into spaces that are only open to members–and learned some fun facts about this cultural icon and historical gem of the Upper East Side.

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The New York Society Library is older than the country itself.

Established in 1754, the NYSL is 141 years older than the New York Public Library. At the time, New York was still a British colony under the rule of King George III, who gifted the library a charter in 1772; the original document is still on display in the library’s second-floor hallway. The library’s first location was just one room inside City Hall. When the United States was born in 1776, New York City was its first capital, and the NYSL thus became the country’s first Library of Congress. This year, the library is celebrating its 270th anniversary, and there’s an exhibition on the second floor celebrating this milestone.

a belief in books 270th anniversary exhibition

Most of the New York Society Library’s books were stolen during the Revolutionary War.

Other than during the pandemic, the Revolutionary War is the only time the library was ever closed. In addition to being stolen, many of the books were destroyed. However, the original 8 books the NYSL ordered were repurchased or gifted to the library when they re-opened in 1789. These 8 books are on display as part of the 270th anniversary exhibition.

ALSO READ: There Was Once a Secret Bookstore in this Old Tenement Building

George Washington was a member of the library—but he did not return his books!

Records indicate that George Washington checked out Law of Nations and House of Commons Debates Volume 12 in 1789 but did not return either, nor was he fined. In 2010, representatives from Mount Vernon gave the library another copy of Law of Nations—perhaps to make up for George Washington’s mistake. The other founding fathers were also members and seemingly more responsible patrons than Washington. Alexander Hamilton is shown to have checked out and returned The Amour of Count Palviano and Eleonara. Other famous visitors included Washington Irving, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, Willa Cather, and WH Auden.

nysl founders

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ALSO READ: Upper East Side Locations of Literary Significance

The current NYSL location used to be a private residence and maintains many original features, including its elevator.

Architects Townbridge and Livingston, known for constructing the Wall Street headquarters of JP Morgan and the St. Regis Sheraton Hotel, built the townhouse that is now home to the NYSL in 1917 for the wealthy Rogers family. The NYSL took ownership in 1939, and many of the Rogers family’s private books can still be found in the library’s members-only reading room. At the time it was built, the townhouse was only two stories tall and had a skylight window that opened up to the sky, though it was plastered over during World War II. When additional floors were added to the library in the early part of the 21st century, the skylight window was discovered and restored to its original form in 2010. Today, the Upper East Side building is not only a bustling library but also a registered New York City Landmark.

Members-only reading room with porcelain donated by a benefactor

Members-only reading room with porcelain donated by a benefactor

Members-only reading room

Members-only reading room

The entire card catalog from founding to 1989 is also preserved.

It can be found in the catalog room on the first floor. The card catalog went digital in March 1989. Also, you can get free coffee, tea, and cookies in this room every weekday. Teatime is 3-3:30 p.m. in the first-floor catalog room and is open to members and non-members alike.

New York Society Library Free cookies and coffee

Free cookies, coffee and tea in the card catalog room.

While all are welcome to visit the library and attend events, there are certain resources and rooms only available to members. Annual membership fees range from $100 for e-membership to $350 for a family membership. The library’s hours are Monday-Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday-Thursday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Saturday-Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. To learn more, visit www.nysoclib.org.


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