How Queens Public Library brought a branch to Woodhaven: Our Neighborhood, The Way it Was

Courtesy of Woodhaven Cultural and Historical Society

Industrialist Andrew Carnegie was one of the richest men in American history, and later in life he became a philanthropist who funded the building of libraries around the world. More than 2,500 Carnegie libraries were built around the world, including nearly 1,700 in the United States and one in Woodhaven, Queens.

By the start of the 20th century, Woodhaven was expanding to the north. Much of the community had originally settled around University Place (95th Avenue, in what is today known as Ozone Park). The rest of Woodhaven was open space, mostly farmland.

Woodhaven’s very first library was a small traveling station founded in 1911 by Dr. Albert L. Voltz. It was located on Jamaica Avenue at Manor Avenue (between 94th and 95th streets today). Traveling libraries were a popular way of bringing book collections to rural areas, such as Woodhaven was at the time.

As farms were sold and houses built, the population increased dramatically. Transportation lines were built and improved. Buildings went up and businesses opened all along Jamaica Avenue. More schools were needed and, eventually, the need for a permanent library became clear.

The Queens Public Library (founded in 1896) opened a branch at the corner of Dennington and Jamaica avenues in Woodhaven. Today, customers at the Kentucky Fried Chicken on 88th Street and Jamaica Avenue might be surprised to hear that this used to be the location of Woodhaven’s first permanent library.

In the early 1920s Woodhaven’s population showed no signs of slowing down and by 1922 the Queens Public Library determined that Woodhaven had shown a greater increase in readers than any other community in New York City.

And so, plans for a new library were announced. But the city announced that it didn’t have money to spare and here enters the legacy of Mr. Carnegie, who had passed away a few years earlier in 1919 at the age of 83.

The Queens Public Library had been the recipient of a large Carnegie Library grant, but by 1922 the money was nearly gone. Only $40,000 remained, not enough for the estimated $75,000 it would take to build a new library in Woodhaven.

The Queens Public Library appealed to the Board of Estimate for the additional funds, but they were turned down as the board wanted to use the money for “local improvements.” A local organization was formed, the Permanent Joint School and Library Committee of Woodhaven, and they took their case to the press, making loud noises in favor of a new library.

Queens Borough President Maurice E. Connolly entered the controversy and saved the day by pointing to a balance of unused funds allotted to street cleaning from the year before. The Board of Estimate voted to allow $35,000 of this fund to be added to the Carnegie funds to reach the $75,000 needed to build.

Woodhaven’s Robert F. Schirmer was hired as the architect (shortly after this, he would go on to design the new St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church on 96th Street). The design called for the library to be built from brick and stone, measuring 70 by 32 feet, with a reading room and a lecture room in the basement.

They estimated that there would be room for 22,000 books in the new Woodhaven Library.

A 100-by-100-foot plot was purchased at the corner of Forest Parkway and Shipley Street (now 85th Drive) and the cornerstone was laid during a large ceremony on Saturday, July 7, 1923. New York City Mayor John F. Hylan was scheduled to be in attendance but failed to show.

But Hylan’s no-show didn’t seem to bother the large crowd that assembled that day; they were just very excited to see the brand-new library get built. The invocation was read by the Reverend John Donaldson, Pastor of the Union Course Baptist Church (still in business as All Nations Baptist Church on 80th Street).

And James Pasta, the very first commander of American Legion Post 118 Woodhaven, delivered a patriotic address.

The Queens Public Library Woodhaven Branch formally opened its doors on Monday, Jan. 7, 1924, at 3 P.M. It was completed for $70,000 ($5,000 under budget). And not only was the architect from Woodhaven, but the builder, Henry Berau (of Berau Fraser) was also a resident.

There was a lot to be proud of that day and nearly 100 years later, the library that Woodhaven hoped and prayed for is still going strong.