Helpern Architects

St Agnes Library

New York, New York
NYC Department of Design and Construction

Helpern Architects’ renovation of the 18,000-sf St. Agnes Carnegie library on Amersterdam Avenue revived this historic structure and re-established it as a neighborhood resource.

Completed in 2009 under a double contract with the NYC DDC (building) and the New York Public Library (interiors), our renovation restored the Renaissance Revival facade, all three floors of the library, plus the basement.

Gone are the dropped ceilings and fluorescent lights. New interior features include additional wooden bookcases, modern interpretations of antique light fixtures, and a custom librarian’s desk at the entry. The first floor also houses new staff offices, a Children’s Reading Room and a dedicated “Story Hour” area—a small-scale, playful section defined by an etched glass partition that proclaims the purpose of the space. New skylights again form the shed roof.

On the second floor, separate reading areas serve adults and teenagers. The third floor contains a community room, computer lab, and the Center for Reading and Writing, an adult reading education program. The basement provides storage for the library’s popular ongoing book sale.

On the fourth floor, a former custodian’s apartment presented an excellent opportunity to conceal a new HVAC system and modern technologies within the historic shell. By locating the HVAC system there, rather than on the roof, we both reduced its visual impact from the exterior and provided ease of maintenance. Existing chases served as a conduit for new ductwork, and the team conducted probes to find more empty spaces within the walls to conceal infrastructure, and to preserve the character of the space.

Original refinished oak paneling and flooring provided texture. The restored grand stair case retains the iron hooks on the banisters —a hallmark of Carnegie libraries that prevented children from sliding down.

Tucked behind the stair, an elevator provides access for the disabled. Though codes stipulated fireproofing for this signature open stairwell, the architects worked closely with the NYC Department of Buildings to reach a solution: smoke baffles allowed the stair to remain open on the first floor, while a two-hour-rated glass enclosure fireproofed the second and third floors.

Photos: © Elizabeth Felicella