The stairs leading up to the apartment.There are many people who say the library played an important role in their childhood. But for Kenneth Choquette, the library was—quite literally—his home.
Ken's grandfather, John Mahon, was the custodian at the Webster Library from approximately 1940-1971. In those days, mostly because of the coal furnace, being a custodian was a twenty-four hour job. At the very top of Webster, up a back staircase, was Ken's home: a four room apartment. The space itself is still there, but it is now full of air conditioning vents and electrical panels.
Ken loved growing up in the library. He has many fond memories. However, at the time, it was very different than other friends' homes. And as a kid, you try hard not to stand out. But Ken soon realized that while friends may have associated the library with studying during the day, as soon as it closed, it was a very fun place to be. Who wouldn't want to roll around on the wooden book carts? Or type ghost stories on the Underwood manual typewriter? Or race up and down the spiral staircase?
The spiral staircase.
It wasn't all fun and games, of course; there was a lot of work to be done too. Every Saturday, Ken dusted the shelves in the library for one dollar. When he got older he also had to help shovel coal and shake down the ashes for the furnace. This needed to be done four times a day or the library wouldn't have heat or hot water. Ken's grandfather lived through the Depression and was very respectful and protective of his job. Mr. Mahon didn't just do what needed to be done, he made the library shine. (He hand-polished the brass nameplate outside the library's door every day.) Ken proudly remembers his grandfather's work ethic: “My whole life was based on what this man did, as a complete foundation.
Living in the library was an adventure, but it also got Ken into trouble a few times. One evening, after the library had closed, Ken was using his key to get inside. Suddenly, a burly policeman stopped him and demanded to know what he was doing. When Ken innocently replied, “I live here,” the policeman was not amused. So Ken took him all the way up to the apartment to introduce him to his grandparents. The policeman's jaw dropped. Like most people, even those who used the library every day, he had no idea that a family actually lived there!
The roof as it is today (Ken's backyard).
Ken's favorite part of the apartment was the door that led to the library's roof (or in his case, his backyard). He went out there every day. They had a small pool, played hopscotch, and even lost a few balls to the neighboring Chinese restaurant. His dog, a fox terrier, never stepped foot on a city sidewalk—they just let him out on the roof, whenever needed.
Another quirk about living in the library: The building was still using DC current at the time, so Ken's family couldn't use many modern appliances. They had to find an Emerson television because it was the only brand left with both AC/DC capabilities. Their washing machine had a spinning drum at the bottom and wooden rollers at the top to squeeze out the water. And whenever he moved the slide bar on the heavy metal GE fan, or plugged anything in, sparks shot out.
The manual dumbwaiter Ken's family used to bring groceries from the basement to the 4th floor.I met Ken when he came into the library a few months ago. It was his first time visiting Webster since moving out forty-one years before. He lives in Pennsylvania now but was in New York for a conference and couldn't resist stopping in.
The library has definitely changed and it was sad for Ken to see the apartment space completely different. But as soon as he stepped onto the roof, or ran down the spiral staircase, he was instantly taken back to his childhood.
I am so grateful to Ken for sharing his memories with me. Libraries are full of history and knowledge, but I love the idea that Webster was also someone's home. We hope that it feels a bit like that for our users as well!
The last live-in custodian in the NYPL system left in 2006. Alas, many of the apartments have been converted during branch renovations and are no longer recognizable. For more information, see Sachiko Clayton's incredibly researched post.