New York's stately libraries sport hidden apartments for live-in caretakers

For the first half of the 20th Century, it was common for New York's libraries to have live-in superintendents, whose families would live on-site in hidden apartments -- the last one of these apartments wasn't vacated until 2006.

The grown children of these caretakers recall lives in "mansions full of books" with private night-time access to the rooftop gardens, meet-and-greets with famous writers, and built-in summer jobs as library pages, shelving books.


While the superintendent at the New York Society Library now comes and goes just like its librarians, for nearly 25 years, the building was home to the Thornberry family. In 1943, Patrick Thornberry, an Irish immigrant, moved into the building with his young wife, Rose. Rose was also an Irish immigrant and apparently the reason why Patrick had come overseas in the first place. By the time the Thornberrys moved into the New York Society Library, they also had a six-year-old daughter, Rose Mary.

The family, who were joined by Rose Mary’s younger brother Terrence in 1945, lived in the library until Patrick Thornberry retired as the building’s superintendent in 1967. Their home was in what the library now refers to as the “closed stack” (a locked stack reserved for rare books). While the closed stack is currently sealed off to daylight to protect its rare contents, when the Thornberrys lived in the library, it was a light-filled and vibrant space. But the family was by no means confined to their apartment. They also enjoyed a penthouse-level garden and after hours, access to the library’s stacks and large reference rooms too.

If living in a mansion full of books at the corner of 79th and Madison doesn’t already sound like any book lover’s dream home, Rose Mary and Terrence, who grew up in the library, recall other distinct benefits.

In a 2014 interview with Sara Holliday, who currently holds the position of Events Coordinator at the New York Society Library, Rose Mary Thornberry McLeod and Dr. Terrence Thornberry emphasized that growing up behind and in the stacks was both fun and brimming with opportunities. For example, from time to time the children met famous writers and other luminaries in their own home. On one occasion, young Rose Mary was called to the front desk to meet actress Maude Adams who was best known for creating the role of Peter Pan in J. M. Barrie’s 1905 play. But meeting famous authors and actors was not the only upside of growing up in a library.

Life Behind the Stacks: The Secret Apartments of New York Libraries
[Cait Etherington]


(via Diane Duane)