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The St. Agnes branch of the New York Public Library is located at 444 Amsterdam Avenue, between 81st and 82nd streets. Nearby, on Central Park West, are fancy high-rises. Amsterdam Avenue and the side streets have a less glamorous mix of brownstones and neighborhood shops that, while upgraded some, still have the feel I remember from the 1950s when I would make a weekly visit to St. Agnes for a stack of history books aimed at pre-adolescents, especially Random House's Landmark series. St. Agnes opened in 1906, one of the original 30 branches of the New York Public Library funded by Andrew Carnegie, built in the classic design of architects Babb, Cook and Willard. Carnegie's establishment of the national library system remains one of the great philanthropic gifts in our history.
About 15 years ago, I visited Homestead, Pennsylvania, which had just endured the shutting down of U.S. Steel's largest foundry. Homestead's library, funded by Carnegie and built on a hillside in the town center, was practically its last vestige of dignity, because it had an endowment and could serve as a repository of information about welfare and other government programs.
The St. Agnes story is much more upbeat. Beginning in 2007, the building underwent a $9.75 million renovation using a combination of city-provided funds and private gifts, including one from the family that owns Zabar's, the legendary delicatessen and gourmet food store around on the corner on Broadway. The building reopened in February. With all the transformation under way in the book world, I wondered what that change meant in a community institution I once knew so well. The renovation has maintained the classical façade of the building and much of the internal woodwork, but the interior spaces have been adapted to be ADA-compliant and now have large back windows and skylights.