by Kevin Walsh

THE Huntington Free Library in Westchester Square, Bronx (where Westchester and East Tremont Avenues get together) is a small, dark brownstone building with an arched front door with a chiseled “18” on one side and “90” on the other, providing the date it was built. Over the arch, a chiseled sign says “Huntington Free Library and Reading Room.” It’s a reminder of the days before there was such a thing as a library where you could go in and borrow  a book free of charge.  This library was a gift by local resident Peter Van Schaick in 1883 with funding by railroad nabob Collis Huntington; the library remained closed for ten years while details about the cost of its upkeep were worked out. The architect was Frederick Withers, who also designed the pleasantly eclectic Jefferson Market Library building in Greenwich Village.

Since 1930, the Library has been home to a voluminous Native American research collection, as well as a Bronx history collection. Collis Huntington’s adopted son Archer was a benefactor of the Museum of the American Indian, which became a part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington in 1990, with the Huntington Free Library left out of the arrangement.

The Library’s Reading Room features an engraving and oil painting of Collis Huntington, a large map of Throgs Neck in the 1850s drawn by the late Bronx historian, John McNamara, and a visitors register including some well-known figures, including Booker T. Washington’s 1894 visit. Piping for the reading room’s original gas lighting is visible near a book stack, as well as the library’s card catalog (an item quickly becoming scarce in most libraries), and vintage typewriters are on display.

Though the Reading Room, with its large Bronx picture and book collection, remains open weekdays by appointment at (718) 829-7770, the Native American collection’s 40,000 volumes on the archaeology, ethnology and history of America’s native people was transferred to Cornell University’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections in Ithaca, New York in June 2004. Included in the collection is a 1685 edition of the Bible in Natick Indian, Edward Curtis’ 20-volume edition of the North American Indian, and an album of famed artist George Catlin’s drawings of American Indians.

I have led three FNY tours in the Westchester Square area and on each one, I’ve been fortunate to gain access to the inside of the library on the weekend from the late historian Bill Twomey and present-day historian Thomas X. Casey. Today’s photos are from the 2019 tour.

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1 comment

therealguyfaux October 7, 2022 - 12:08 pm

If you go to their website, you will discover that, in addition to its core mission of being a store of information available to researchers, it’s also an event space, which I suppose helps pay the upkeep.


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