Before The Frick: Remembering The Lenox Library

  • Posted on Dec 01, 2016 by

Decades before Henry Clay Frick (1849–1919) moved to New York City and began filling his mansion with artistic masterpieces, another extraordinarily wealthy collector was populating his own mammoth structure with books and art in exactly the same location. James Lenox (1800–1880) was one of the richest men in New York in the second half of the nineteenth century, and one of its most influential philanthropists and bibliophiles. His public library stood where The Frick Collection stands today and did so from 1877 until Frick demolished it in 1912. 


photograph of James Lenox standing

James Lenox, photographer unknown, c. 1870–1880

The Lenox Library was one of the earliest libraries that were open to the public in New York (Reed, 18-19). Lenox had been collecting books, bibliophily, and fine art since 1845. Before he decided to formally establish his library, Lenox stored his book collection in piles in his townhouse on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 12th Street. He simply remembered where he put his books when they were added to his collection. As Lenox aged, this system became less reliable, and he decided to construct a building to house his book and art collections. (Stevens, 144-146).


Back of The Lenox Library, showing the “million dollar hay field"

Back of The Lenox Library, showing the “million dollar hay field,” photographer unknown, Museum of the City of New York.

For the site of his library, Lenox chose a plot of land, located on Fifth Avenue between 70th and 71st Street, on the farm he had inherited from his father. This area of New York was rural, though it was quickly developing. The farm’s hay field remained active for years after the opening of the library. 

Lenox hired the well-known and highly regarded architect Richard Morris Hunt (1827–1895) to design the building. Construction began in 1871 and ended in 1877. In January of that year, the galleries of painting and sculpture opened to the public. The manuscript and rare book rooms opened later in the same year. The remaining reading rooms did not open for access to the book collections until 1882. The library was not easily accessible. Approved visitors had to apply for admission tickets via mail before they could enter (Stern, 198). 


photograph of the Lenox Library 

The Lenox Library, H.N. Tiemann & Co., Museum of the City of New York.

The Lenox Library was considered one of the most notable architectural attractions in New York at the time of its completion. It was designed in the Neo-Grec style, though critics also considered it modern classic—citing the French influence of Hunt’s École des Beaux Arts education. Some visitors felt that the façade was too severe, but others loved its grandeur and stateliness (Stern, 200). 

The building spanned the length of the city block it occupied. A central courtyard faced Fifth Avenue, flanked by two wings. The first floor rooms had twenty-four foot ceilings, and the second floor rooms had forty-foot ceilings—creating incredibly lofty and grand spaces (“The Lenox Library,” American Architect). Through the courtyard, visitors entered a large vestibule with two majestic staircases. To the south was a reading room, and to the north was a gallery. On the second floor, the main gallery ran parallel to the street. It featured large windows that overlooked Central Park and contained five arcades, paintings and sculptures were placed throughout the space. Repeating the first floor layout, a reading room was located to the south, and a gallery was located to the north. The building continued up for another half floor, with a balcony gallery running along the entire length of the courtyard (“The Lenox Library,” American Architect).


 architectural drawing of longitudinal section of Thro Gallerie

Longitudinal Section Thro Galleries, American Architect and Building News 2 (1877): 280-81.

Early reviews of the library recount that after entering the south wing reading room on the first floor, the initial thing visitors saw was the Gutenberg Bible in a rosewood case (“Biblia in the Lenox Collection”). This bible was the first of its kind to enter the New World and was perhaps the greatest treasure of the library. Its display suggests that the finest books in the library’s collections were exhibited in its reading rooms and meant to be admired as much as to be used for research.

In the art galleries, visitors reported that the “individuality of the collector” was quite apparent in the collection and arrangement of the pictures (Strahan, 8). The works were not arranged according to artist or genre but rather according to the taste of Lenox. His art collection was described as “decidedly solid rather than brilliant,” an opinion that seems consistent across criticism in the past and today (Saule, 319). Highlights included works by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), Gilbert Stuart (1775–1828), Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902), Frederic Edwin Church (1826–1900), Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788), and Thomas Cole (1801–1848) (Lenox Library: A Guide to the Paintings and Sculpture). A large scale painting by Minhály Munkácsy (1844–1900) was added to the collection in 1879 and was greeted with much acclaim (Strahan, 8). 

The Lenox Library was not only one of the first public libraries in New York, but it was also one of the first public art exhibition spaces. Aside from the burgeoning institutions of the National Academy of Design and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New Yorkers had few places to view fine art in their city. The Lenox Library helped pave the way for future cultural institutions by becoming a part of the founding collection of the New York Public Library as well as conceding its plot of land to what would eventually turn into The Frick Collection. 

To learn more about the architecture of The Lenox Library and of the New York Art Resources Consortium (NYARC)’s Frick Art Reference Library, look for the tours given by the Frick every year for Open House New York (OHNY) Weekend.

Eliza Goodpasture, Intern, Frick Art Reference Library

Works Cited

"Biblia in the Lenox Collection." The Art Journal 5 (1879): 36-37. JSTOR. Web. 4 Aug. 2016. 

Lenox Library: A Guide to the Paintings and Sculptures Exhibited to the Public. Printed by Order of the Trustees, 1879. Print.

Reed, Henry Hope, and Francis Morrone. The New York Public Library: The Architecture and Decoration of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. W.W. Norton and Company, 2011. Print.

Saule, Fr. "The Lenox Collection." The Auldine 8.10 (1877): 318-19. JSTOR. Web. 4 Aug. 2016. 

Stern, Robert A.M., Thomas Mellins, and David Fishman. New York 1880: Architecture and Urbanism in the Gilded Age. Monacelli Press, 1999. Print.

Stevens, Henry. Recollections of James Lenox and the Formation of His Library. New York Public Library, 1951. Print.

Strahan, Edward. "Art Collection of the Lenox Library." The Art Amateur 2.1 (1879): 8. JSTOR. Web. 4 Aug. 2016. 

"The Lenox Library, New York, N.Y—Mr. R. M. Hunt Architect." American Architect and Building News 2 (1877): 280-81. HathiTust. Web. 4 Aug. 2016.

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