Libraries are spaces of wonder that fuel curiosity and imagination. They inspire us to learn, explore, and have inquisitive minds. The New York Public Library, also known as the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, which is often referred to as the main branch of the library system, does this better than most world-famous libraries. Standing on Fifth Avenue between 40th and 42nd Street, it is an invaluable source for research, an established New York City landmark, and an iconic Beaux-Arts treasure.
Here are 10 things you didn’t know about the New York Public Library:
1. New York Public Library Origins
In the nineteenth century, when New York was shaping up to be one of the most important urban cities globally, it had only two libraries – the Astor and Lennox libraries. While neither were deemed as public institutions, both were facing extreme financial difficulties. The New York Public Library was then formed in 1895 and is known as the New York Public Library, Astor Lenox, and Tilden Foundations. While the reigning libraries at the time, namely the British Library and the Bibliotheque Nationale de France, contained around 1.75 and 3 million volumes, the New York Public Libraries housed about 350,000 volumes when it opened.
2. Original Site History
The site for the New York Public Library’s main building was much debated. It was decided to be located on 5th Avenue, neighboring the Grand Central Terminal, for its ample size and central location. The site originally housed the Old Croton Reservoir, which held 20 million gallons of water within its 50-foot tall walls. The reservoir served as a vital source of water supply for all of New York City for over a century. Once the reservoir was deemed obsolete in the 1890s, it was demolished to make way for the new library building. Today, the library still houses pieces of the reservoir walls on the South Court’s lower level.
3. Designing the New York Public Library
Among all the designers invited to submit designs for the New York Public Library, Carrere & Hastings won the competition with a practical and monumental design for the library. Their entry prevailed over many senior architects of the day, including McKim, Mead & White, where both John Carrere & Thomas Hastings had trained in the early 1880s. The first director of the library, Sohn Shaw Billings, drafted a set of guidelines, dimensions and a parti. The parti stated that the library had to be a three-story building having a central core and a grand entry hall, among a series of primary functions and parameters for the design.
4. Construction Cost and Duration
The first cornerstone, weighing 7.5 tons, for the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building was laid in November of 1902. The exterior was constructed using 530,000 cubic feet of Vermont marble, making it the most massive marble structure ever built in the United States. The New York Public Library used six times more marble than the marble used to construct the New York Stock Exchange and the New York Chamber of Commerce combined. The Astor Hall, or the main entry hall, is the only interior in the entire city to be made up entirely of marble.
5. Architecture Style | New York Public Library
In the 1880s, many architects from New York City, including Carrere & Hastings, gained an education from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The monumental library building, too, was designed in the style of what they studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. This style was identified as the ‘American Renaissance’ in the early 20th century when the term “Beaux-Arts” wasn’t as widely used. It combines the principles of ancient Greek classical architecture and the Renaissance concepts from Rome. The style is characterized by symmetry, grandeur, elaborate ornamentation, and visual hierarchy. Carrere & Hastings celebrated the Beaux-Arts style in their design by creating the drama using intricate ornamental details, lavishly decorated interiors, and grand stairways among others.
6. Library Illumination
The Main Reading Room and the Catalog Room had huge arched windows with bronze frames on either side of the rooms set high on the wall above the bookcases that brought in ample natural light. Large circular chandeliers also illuminated the rooms with four tiers that are suspended by multiple chains. Along with providing illumination, they also brought in the sense of glamour and luxury. The lighting fixtures used spherical incandescent bulbs, which were relatively new, while its predecessors were mainly gaslights. Electricity proved to be much safer, and the New York Public Library was built with its own generation plant. In 2016, all the 22 chandeliers were restored by Aurora Lampworks by adding LED fixtures.
7. Largest Interior in New York City
The Main Reading Room or the Rose Reading Room of the New York Public Library is 78 feet wide and 297 feet long and has a height of 51 feet. It is one of the country’s largest interiors without any interior columns, steel reinforcements, or a dome to support the ceiling. Its size is comparable to that of a football field. The reading room could seat 490 before its renovation with 42 tables made of oak and can now seat up to 624 readers. The architects, Carrere & Hastings, designed all of its interior features, including room finishes, lighting fixtures, tables, chairs, and even the hardware and wastebaskets.
8. Under the New York Public Library
The New York Public Library sits on Fifth Avenue, right in front of Bryant Park. Bryant Park is one of New York City’s most celebrated parks as it is the longest expanse of grass south of Central Park. The Milstein Research Stacks of the library live under Bryant Park. There are only 6 feet of soil present between the park and the archives. It is an expanse of 120,000 square feet that holds about 4 million research volumes contained in 125 miles of shelving. The project funded by the City of New York is equipped with conveyor systems, climate control, fire suppression systems, and mobile shelving. The library installed a state-of-the-art “book train” to efficiently transport books from the underground archives to the reading room. The library now fulfills 90% of research requests on site.
9. Library Lions
Right in front of the majestic Beaux-Arts facade of the library sit Patience and Fortitude, the pair of marble lions that were given the title of New York’s most lovable sculptures by critic Paul Goldberg. The lions were sculpted by Edward Clark Potter and carved by the Piccirilli Brothers using pink Tennessee marble. The mascots were named Patience and Fortitude in the 1930s by Mayor LaGuardia, who felt those were the qualities that New Yorkers needed to survive the Great Depression.
10. Mural Restoration | New York Public Library
The Rose Reading Room at Manhattan’s New York Public Library first opened in 1911. The 50-foot high ceiling houses a 105-year-old mural of the sky, “Morking Sky”, painted by James Wall Finn. Surrounding this mural is a frame of intricate carving and plasterwork featuring floral motifs, rosettes, and acanthus leaves, among others. This mural was painted to give readers a sense of calm and serenity, just like it would feel to read in the open air and under the sky. In 2014, one of the ornate rosettes, weighing 16 pounds, fell from the ceiling shattered to pieces. This prompted an extensive restoration of the reading room. With the help of WJE Engineers and Architects and EverGreene Architectural Arts, all 102 ceiling rosettes were restored, and wreaths were reinforced. A replica of the ceiling sky mural was made on canvas and in situ. The rose reading room opened in the fall of 2016, reinforced and stronger than ever.
- Landmarks Preservation Commission