Past and Present: The Bay Ridge Public Library


    A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

    By 1880, Bay Ridge was developing as one of Brooklyn’s premier suburban neighborhoods. Its greatest asset was that wonderful view of New York Bay and the Narrows — close to New Jersey, while simultaneously tied to Downtown Brooklyn and on to Manhattan by trolleys, roads and ferries.

    Many of Brooklyn’s moneyed folk were looking to Shore Road as a grand location for second homes. The largest of these homes was owned by Henry Murphy, a lawyer, past mayor of Brooklyn, Congressman, U.S. Ambassador to The Hague and one of the most influential voices in advocating the building of the Brooklyn Bridge.

    He lived most of the year on Remsen Street in the Heights, but built a fabulous mansion on the highest point in Bay Ridge, overlooking the Narrows.

    Murphy died in 1882 and his mansion became the property of Eliphalet W. Bliss. Bliss made his fortune making metal cans for food and other products. During the Civil War, he added munitions to his company’s repertoire. After all, what is a missile but another kind of metal can?

    This all made him extremely wealthy. He expanded the Murphy mansion, added a fancy stable and a tall observation tower, and renamed the estate Owl’s Head.

    Murphy and Bliss may have been the wealthiest to decamp to Bay Ridge, but they were not alone. Many upscale people followed, and although not all of them could have a Shore Road mansion, they built fine homes on the hilly streets, some with large lawns and grounds.

    The wives of these wealthy men formed clubs and organized charitable events. They also liked to have luncheons and card parties and all kinds of get-togethers. In 1880, a group of them decided to start the Bay Ridge Reading Club.

    Bay Ridge Brooklyn Bay Ridge Branch Brooklyn Public Library History

    Postcard via eBay

    The Ladies of the Bay Ridge Reading Club

    The Club met at members’ homes or at the swanky Ridge Club. They read and discussed books, had guest speakers, poetry and prose readings, and other social events.

    The Brooklyn Eagle wrote that the club was “composed of the wives of some of the most representative men of the charming suburb after which it is named.”

    In 1888, the ladies of the Bay Ridge Reading Club established the Bay Ridge Free Library. The first library was located in a room at the Bay Ridge Athenaeum, on 2nd Avenue near 70th Street. They immediately began fundraising in order to build a new dedicated library building.

    The BRRC was all female, so it’s interesting that the Bay Ridge Free Library’s first board of directors was all male. They chose a building committee and began soliciting funds and began a search for a location.

    They were quite pleased when Mr. E.W. Bliss himself donated the funds to purchase the land on the corner of 2nd Avenue and 73rd Street. The Board of Trustees then appointed a committee from the Reading Club to choose and architect.

    Bay Ridge Brooklyn Bay Ridge Branch Brooklyn Public Library History

    Photo via Brooklyn Public Library

    The ladies chose John J. Petit as their architect. He was a well known Brooklyn architect with a fine reputation for building urban and suburban homes. Petit, alone and with his firm Kirby, Petit & Green, actually had their best years ahead of them.

    After designing this library, Petit was chosen to be Dean Alvord’s Chief Architect for his Prospect Park South development. Petit did amazing work there. He was also the chief architect for William Reynold’s amusement park in Coney Island, called Dreamland. More locally, in 1899, Petit designed the Siatta house, a large suburban Tudor style mansion in Dyker Heights.

    For the Bay Ridge Free Library, Petit designed a two-story, Romanesque Revival brick building with brownstone trim. Always a great mixer of styles, this library building had a very Mediterranean feel, accentuated by the pitched Craftsman/Bungalow style roof.

    Bay Ridge Brooklyn Bay Ridge Branch Brooklyn Public Library History

    Postcard via eBay

    The building’s cornerstone was laid with great ceremony on July 4, 1896. The building cost $10,000. Fundraisers were held all during its construction, culminating in one in the not-quite-complete library in November.

    The new Bay Ridge Free Library celebrated its grand opening in December. The collection of books residing in the Athenaeum was moved to its new home before Christmas.

    Bay Ridge Brooklyn Bay Ridge Branch Brooklyn Public Library History

    Photo via Brooklyn Public Library

    The Bay Ridge Free Library Become Part of the Brooklyn Public Library System

    In 1901, the Brooklyn Public Library began gathering up all of the city’s independent libraries under its wing. The Bay Ridge Free Library, along with the nearby Fort Hamilton Library, became branches of the Brooklyn Public Library. The central branch of that library was a large mansion in Bedford, near Bedford and Atlantic avenues.

    Around this time, Andrew Carnegie and his Carnegie Library Fund offered New York City millions of dollars to build new neighborhood libraries. This one in Bay Ridge had already been constructed, and was still new. It may have received funds indirectly from the Carnegie Fund to buy books and materials, but this is not a Carnegie Library.

    Bay Ridge Brooklyn Bay Ridge Branch Brooklyn Public Library History

    1896 library reading room. Photo via Brooklyn Public library

    The Bay Ridge Book Club continued to make the library their cause. They organized fundraisers for improvements, books and programs for the library for the next 50 years, if not longer.

    For many of those years, the Book Club was under the leadership of Mrs. Otto Heinigke, who must have been a formidable woman. She was one of the club’s founding members in 1880, was the Secretary from 1886-1906 and president from 1906 until her death.

    Bay Ridge Brooklyn Bay Ridge Branch Brooklyn Public Library History

    Brooklyn Life photo, 1926

    Jessie Heinigke was born and raised in Bay Ridge. She was married to Otto Heinigke, one of Brooklyn’s finest stained-glass artists. He designed the stained glass windows for the Congressional Library in Washington, D.C., as well as in churches in Manhattan.

    Some of Heinigke’s finest work can be seen in the magnificent stained glass windows in the Old First Reformed Church on Carroll Street and 7th Avenue in Park Slope. Otto was also a gifted fine artist and made a fine living from his talents.

    Mrs. Heinigke, along with several other local ladies and gentlemen, were responsible for creating and maintaining the library, long after it was taken over by the BPL.

    Otto died in 1915. Jessie continued as a prominent member of the Reading Club, as well as her activities with the Episcopal Church and other charities until her death at the age of 87, in 1937.

    The library continued through the 20th century, as Bay Ridge changed from a suburban community to part of urban Brooklyn. 2nd Avenue’s name was changed to Ridge Boulevard. Many of the large summer homes were torn down for apartment buildings and smaller homes.

    The Shore Road remained popular but the mansions disappeared, including Owl’s Head, which became a park. The 4th Avenue subway — the R line — was extended to Bay Ridge, and in 1964 the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge spanned the bay, joining Brooklyn and Staten Island.

    Bay Ridge Brooklyn Bay Ridge Branch Brooklyn Public Library History

    Photo via Brooklyn Public Library

    In 1958, all the library’s books were removed and taken to a temporary library nearby. The Petit building was torn down. Two years later, the new Brooklyn Public Library’s Bay Ridge Branch opened at the same location.

    The new branch was modern, a Brutalist design made of concrete, steel and glass, typical of the kind of libraries, schools and other civic buildings being built at the time. The library is still two stories tall, with an airy children’s entrance on the 73rd Street side.

    Bay Ridge Brooklyn Bay Ridge Branch Brooklyn Public Library History

    Photo via Google Maps

    The spare design’s one attempt at ornament is in the form of a band of light blue terra cotta panels that run between the first and second floors. They feature symbolic representations made of the same terra cotta, representing the pursuit of the light of knowledge, music, atomic power, mechanics, engineering and reading.

    Like all of the Brooklyn Public Library’s branches, the Bay Ridge Branch was seriously upgraded in 2004 with new lighting, furniture, shelving and computer technology. The public then had 27 computers installed for public use.

    The ladies of the Bay Ridge Reading Club may not have liked the new library building, but they would certainly have been pleased to know how valuable the library still is to their community. The library is located at 7223 Ridge Blvd, at 73rd Street.

    Bay Ridge Brooklyn Bay Ridge Branch Brooklyn Public Library History

    Photo via Brooklyn Public Library

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