Chipped paint, peeling wallpaper, fading decals, and dangerous dumbwaiters. That’s about all that’s left of the clandestine apartments that were built into many of New York City’s public libraries decades ago. Atlas Obscura’s Sarah Laskow gives readers a guided tour of these haunted and haunting locations in an eerie but affectionate article called “Inside The New York Public Library’s Last, Secret Apartments.” Why would libraries even need on-site apartments? When philanthropic fat cat Andrew Carnegie bankrolled the New York library system a century ago, the large buildings were heated by coal-burning furnaces that had to stay lit at all times. The apartments were intended for custodians who would live there, either alone or with their families, to make sure those furnaces never went out. So it was sort of like The Shining, only with way more books. As technology improved, the need for live-in custodians diminished, and most of those apartments were remodeled and repurposed. By Laskow’s estimation, only 13 of them remain, and they’re in pretty rough shape, having not been occupied in decades.
Laskow’s investigations reveal that these apartments were designed to be functional rather than beautiful, though there are some nice touches, such as a “prettily molded ceiling,” plus some evidence that the custodial families did what they could to make the apartments more homey. In one apartment, Laskow observes, “no surface that could be decorated is left plain.”
The librarians interviewed for this piece are not especially enthusiastic about those remaining apartments, even though they serve as links to the past. “We have so many demands on our space, besides just the books, that it’s almost criminal not to turn these apartments into program space,” says Iris Weinshall, the current chief operating officer of the New York Public Library.