This fall I had planned on doing a walking tour of Willa Cather sites in Manhattan, but a foot injury has temporarily put the kibosh on long walks for me. However, last week I was able to make it to the new Willa Cather exhibit that recently opened at The New York Society Library, after which I took a short walk to see Cather’s last apartment building.
“The New York World of Willa Cather” exhibit at The New York Society Library is open to the public from October 23, 2017 through August 31, 2018.
The library building was originally a private home. The home was built in 1917 for John & Catherine Rogers. According to the 1920 census, they employed ten servants. Learn more about the home here.
The new books display and circulation area as viewed from the main staircase. The reference room is to the left and library offices are to the right.
The new exhibit is the first to highlight Cather’s relationship with the New York Society Library. Cather and her partner Edith Lewis became members in 1928 when the library was at its previous location at 109 University Place (Herman Melville was a patron). Comprised of three large posters and three display cases, the exhibit features books by or about Cather and some that were instrumental in her research. There are also some letters and — perhaps the neatest thing of all — Cather and Lewis’ “charging cards” — the record of each book they checked out, including the date it was lent and the date returned.
Notice in the background the art on the walls and the bust. The library is full of beautiful works of art.
This letter is included in The Selected Letters of Willa Cather edited by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout, which I highly recommend if you’d like to get to know Cather.
The original home has five floors. A librarian gave me a basic tour of the library — the members reading room, a work area (the Hornblower Room), private study rooms, and the stacks, which are contained in a twelve-story addition built behind the home when it was converted into the library.
Also in the reference room is a long work table, a wall of books, and multiple computers to access the electronic catalog and other resources. The public is allowed to use this room and may even request books for use in this room. Access to the rest of the library and checkout privileges are for members only.
After the tour of the library, I sat in the reference room to rest my foot and read the exhibit catalog, which I purchased. It features an Introduction by curator Harriet Shapiro, an essay by Andrew Jewell, and photos of Cather.
A member was hovering in the reference room, intently watching the clock. We exchanged a bit of small talk. He informed me that I was there at the perfect time as they served tea every day at 3 pm. Within a few minutes a loud, but pleasant bell chimed several times throughout the library at the same time an employee wheeled a tea cart into the reference room. A few scholars left their labors and ventured in for a spot of tea. However very civilized.
The New York Society Library has had five locations since it was founded in 1754. It has been in its current home since 1937. Read about its fascinating history here.
I left the library and took a walk down Park Avenue to see Willa Cather’s last NYC apartment at 570 Park Avenue. It is just shy of a mile from the library. Cather and Lewis took a quiet apartment at the back of this handsome building in December 1932. Cather died here in 1947. She was 71. Edith Lewis lived to be 90 years old and also died in the apartment in 1972.
If you’re in the area, do stop in to see this unique exhibit celebrating Willa Cather and her relationship with New York and the New York Society Library.
The New York Society Library
53 E. 79th Street
New York, NY 10075