Facing Washington Park, the historic Newark Public Library traces its beginnings to the Newark Library Association, which was formed in 1847. Forty years later, the people of Newark approved the founding of a Free Public Library, which subsequently acquired association’s holdings. The Newark Free Public Library opened on West Park Street and offered 10,000 books which were shelved in open stacks, an innovation at the time. Eventually, the need for more space necessitated the construction of a new building at 5 Washington Street. Shortly before the new building was occupied, then director Frank P. Hill accepted the offer to become head of the Brooklyn Public Library, and he was succeeded by John Cotton Dana.
The cornerstone of the Newark Public Library, although dated 1898 (the year excavation began), was laid at 5 Washington Street on January 26, 1899. The completed structure, built of brick and faced with Indiana limestone along the front and sides, was dedicated on March 14, 1901. The building was designed by the firm of Rankin and Kellogg of Philadelphia, which was among the most well known architects of the Beaux–Arts style and designed several prominent civic institutions, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture Administration Building in Washington, D.C. and the Camden County (NJ) Court House. Francis Brothers & Jellett, of Philadelphia, prepared the plans for the heating and steam work, and James M. Seymour, of Newark, served as the consulting engineer.
John Hall Rankin and Thomas M. Kellogg’s renderings of the four–story Italian Renaissance building were based on the 15th century Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, Italy. The interior of the Library was to serve as a museum, lecture hall, and gallery, providing educational and cultural experiences in an aesthetic setting. The structure, with interior arches and mosaics, boasted a magnificent open center court that extended upward to a stained glass laylight at the fourth floor.
The edifice, which cost $315,000 to construct, spanned 102 feet along Washington Street and had a depth of 137 feet. Along the building’s limestone façade, the first floor included arched windows, horizontal grooving along the surface, and two Roman–style iron and glass lanterns on either side of the entrance. String courses, decorative horizontal bands, projected between each floor. Arched windows were constructed on the second story, and ten high relief medallions were placed in the spandrels, four of which contain a book and a lamp, symbols of knowledge. The third level contained rectangular windows flanked with pilasters featuring Corinthian capitals. Below the projecting flat cornice near the tin hip roof (changed to copper in 1906), a frieze was carved revealing various areas of knowledge: philosophy, religion, sociology, philology, science, fine arts, literature, and history.
As visitors entered the Library through the arched doorway, they passed through a marble–clad vestibule into an illuminated and spacious central court. The atrium featured groin vaulted ceilings covered with mosaics and a plaster frieze and Roseal, Carrara, Pavanazzo, and gray marble columns, wainscoting, flooring, medallions, panels, and stairways.
Located in the center of the central court, the massive marble staircase led users to the adult reading rooms, catalog room, and collection areas of the second floor.
The monumental oak–paneled reading room, which extended along the front of the building, emulated the Bates reading room at the Boston Public Library. The large space, now called Centennial Hall, contained an ornamental 22–foot high ceiling, parquet flooring, eight–foot oak wainscoting and pilasters, and large limestone fireplaces at either end. Eighteen painted embossments, featuring the trade devices of early printers and bookmakers, such as William Caxton and William Morris, decorated the spandrels between the arches.
On the second and third floors, hallways in the form of arcades led visitors around the open center space.
In 1909, the Newark Museum was located on the fourth floor, and lecture rooms and galleries provided a venue for meetings, concerts, and exhibits. The book stacks, which were open to the public, occupied the rear of the building.
Commissioned in 1903 and installed six years later, Wisdom Teaching the Children of Men, a bronze relief over the front entryway of the Library, was sculpted by Newarker John Flanagan. Flanagan was probably best known for later designing the George Washington quarter for the U.S. Mint.
By 1919, the building was experiencing overcrowding of library users and growing collections. In 1921, the trustees approved a two–story, 15,000 square foot addition (plans were submitted by John H. Ely and Wilson C. Ely, architects in Newark) to utilize property at the back and side of the Library. The construction would rest on piers atop the rear court and boiler room and allowed for five parking spaces in the rear of the structure. Completed in 1922 by the T.J. O’Halloran Company, the new addition doubled the size of the children’s room on the first floor.
In 1927, the Friends of the Library commissioned the artist Robert Hales Ives Gammell, a Classical Realist and member of the group known as The Boston Painters to paint a mural. The mythological themed triptych, The Fountain of Knowledge, was unveiled on the east wall of the second floor and depicts a group of sages, the Fountain of Knowledge, and the Nine Muses. The muses, daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, are accompanied by Apollo and carry knowledge to the four corners of the world. A likeness of John Cotton Dana, who served as the institution’s librarian and influential second director until his death in 1929, can be discerned in the far left corner.
In 1931, a four–story, 2,000 square–foot addition was built between the original Library structure and the two–story construction that had been completed in 1922. Books stacks, designed by Wilson and Ely, were also built that year. The new space included an elevator, providing access to the book stacks and enabling more efficient shelving of books.
A two–story, 10,000 square foot brick maintenance building was added at the rear of the property in 1949. Its purpose was to house a cabinet shop and areas for painting, binding, and the mounting of exhibits. A covered passageway connected the maintenance building to the Library. Twenty years later, a third floor was added to the structure.
In 1952, the Library completed a $1,500,000 modernization project, which entailed major structural changes in the main building. Key contractors included the Newark architectural firm of Epple & Seaman and the Becker Construction Company. During this time, the central marble staircase was removed, opening the atrium on the first floor. A new staircase was constructed at the rear and an elevator was installed on the right side of the central court.
Gammell’s mural, The Fountain of Knowledge, was concealed with wooden panels, and coffered ceilings in the building were hidden behind acoustic tiles. The large reading room on the second floor, which closed to the public in 1936, was redecorated. A dropped ceiling and fluorescent lights were installed and the space was used as the Popular Reading Room.
The former lecture hall on the fourth floor was restored to almost its original size, and the Library proceeded to host performances, presentations, and meetings in the Auditorium. Also on the fourth floor, new spaces welcomed the music collection and offered five soundproof listening rooms and a gallery. Additionally, services temporarily housed at the museum annex at 43 Washington Street during the renovation (Teen Corner, children’s room, school library services, and art and music department) returned to the Main Library. The first floor welcomed the Teen Corner, a children’s room, and an education department. Other work included replacing the roof; rewiring; relighting; installation of additional book stacks; new heating, ventilating, and plumbing; and the elimination of the generating plant in the basement. The removal of the generating equipment allowed the accommodation of more book storage stacks for government and other publications.
The Library was again refurbished in the 1980s in order to recover the elegance of its early decades, while increasing its ability to provide the most complete, up–to–date services and materials to the city and the larger community. In 1987, the second floor reading room was restored as Centennial Hall to serve as a meeting and reception area for Library and community functions. The dropped ceiling was removed to reveal the vaulted roof, and ornamental plasterwork and oak paneling, which had been taken down to accommodate book shelves, were replaced. The Gammell mural on the second floor was uncovered and restored in 1988.
In 2006, the original front doors were replaced with new wooden ones. The vestibule was transformed into a brighter space, and display cases were mounted. Renovations were also carried out in the lobby (windows were removed and restored, ceilings, walls, and floors were cleaned), and the northeast corner of the first floor was reconfigured into a media room. New security and information desks were installed, and the large decorative atrium laylight was repaired.
Additional renovation projects, provided by a Community Development Block Grant, took place at the Main Library in 2010–2011. The award funded interior renovations such as new carpeting and painting. It also provided revenue for the exterior Front Entrance Access Project, two granite ADA accessible ramps approved by the Newark Preservation and Landmarks Committee and designed by the architectural firm of Johnson Jones.
The Newark Public Library is situated within the James Street Commons Historic District, added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 and one of the oldest sections of Newark. The Library faces Washington Park, formerly known as “the Market Place” and then as “the Upper Commons.” It was within this historically significant area that the city’s first iron foundry, brewery, and Seth Boyden’s factory were located. The district contains one of the largest remaining concentrations of red-brick townhouses in the city of Newark and reflects the architecture of the post–Civil War era.