Before Albany established a library system in the 1920s, and built the Harmanus Bleecker Library in 1924 on the corner of Washington Ave. and Dove St, as the main branch, the Common Council supported a number of independent libraries. These libraries were then available to the public, as well as members of the various organizations, like the YMCA libraries and John Howe’s independent not for profit library in the South End on South Pearl St.
One of the least remembered, but most used was the Union Free Library. It was housed in the Catholic Union building on Eagle St. and Hudson Ave.
The building previously contained a State Arsenal that opened in 1859, and housed most local military offices throughout the Civil War (although the barracks and training ground were located in an area surrounding Holland and New Scotland Avenues intersection).
By the late 1880s the arsenal had outgrown its usefulness. In 1887 it was sold at auction by New York State. The purchaser was the Roman Catholic Diocese, and the building became the Catholic Union.
The Union was, in essence, a catholic community center, providing space for the various parishes located mostly in the South End. It brought together congregants from the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, the mostly French parish of the Church of the Assumption on Hamilton St., St. Ann’s, St. John’s, the mostly German parishioners of Holy Cross on Philip St., and later the immigrants of St. Anthony’s in Little Italy.
It included lecture rooms, a large hall, kitchens, classrooms, a gymnasium (Al Smith is said to have walked from the Governor’s Mansion, and stripped down to his undershirt to shoot hoops), and a library. By the early 1890s the library held about 3,500 – 4,000 volumes and began to receive city funding.
(By the mid 1930s the privately owned Eagle Movie Theatre was opened on the ground floor in one corner of the Building.)
As immigrants of all faiths crowded into the South End the library grew and usage increased. By 1929 the John Howe library was constructed on Schuyler St. as part of the city system, and city funding for the Union Free library ceased. But the library was still accessible local neighbors for many years.
The Catholic Union building was demolished in the mid-1960s for the Empire State Plaza. The end of an era.
Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor