THE NEW YORK
west side of Fifth Avenue between 40th and
Developer: The New York Public Library
Architect: Carrère & Hastings
By Carter B. Horsley
In his excellent and definitive book, "The
New York Public Library Its Architecture and Decoration, published
in 1986 by W. W. Norton & Company, Henry Hope Reed describes
this correctly as "an edifice of stunning quality - a people's
palace of triumphant glory."
"Astor Hall, at the entrance," Reed
continues, "with its unique stone vault above an awesome
white marble interior, sets the tone for the architectural delights
that lie in store for the visitor. Sumptuous light brackets, elaborately
decorated ceilings, the great gallery extending along the north-south
axis of the building on the first floor, the window bays, the
doorways, the great stairways, all combine to lift the human spirit
and dignify man's achievements. The elaborately decorated Main
Reading Room, almost two city blocks in length, located at the
top of the building for light and quiet, is a fitting climax to
all that the architects wished to achieve."
With McKim, Mead & White's demolished Pennsylvania
Station and Warren & Wetmore's and Reed & Stem's Grand
Central Terminal, the library is one of the most important Beaux-Arts
structures ever erected in midtown. It has neither the incredible
spaciousness drama of the former or the great location straddling
Park Avenue of the latter, but it surpassed both in its consistently
lavish decorative detail. The former Custom House at the foot
of Broadway and the former Hall of Records building on Chambers
Street, both downtown, are far greater Beaux Arts buildings, but
much smaller, though still imposing.
Compared with the sumptuous and extravagant
interior decoration of the Library of Congress in Washington,
of course, the New York Public Library actually is quite disappointing
and relatively barren. But by New York standards, and more importantly,
by New York pre-multimedia intellectual standards, it is hallowed
Incredibly, this vital resource for research
had been allowed to deteriorate and its very purpose denigrated
for many years until the late 1980's when it began to be restored
architecturally and serious attention given to its collections
by means of a major expansion underneath Bryant Park behind it.
But despite the publicity mavens who sit on
its board and attend its black-tie fund-raising functions, its
failure to keep its main reading room open 24 hours a day seven
days a week every week of the year is outrageously contemptible
and none of its officials and patrons have any right to respect
until such a despicable situation is righted!
There is, of course, much that is noble and
fine about this institution and it is making an attempt to preserve
its endangered collections and to utilize computer technology
to assist its users, and certainly the task is formidable and
the ultimate blame for it being less than perfect lies with the
political leadership, namely, the mayors of the city who often
seem more interested in pouring millions into ventures to enrich
the owners of the New York Yankees than to educate the masses
or the elite.
As much as some critics want to believe that
Manhattan's high-rise environment is what makes the city great,
it is its cultural treasures and those include first and foremost
the main library (not its branches) and the Metropolitan Museum
Soapbox oratory aside, the symmetrical main Fifth Avenue
facade of the library, a detail of which is shown at the right,
is splendid, set back on a broad, landscaped terrace with exquisite
flagpoles and fronted by its two famous lion statues, popularly
known as Patience and Fortitude, that wear wreaths during the
winter holidays. Edward Clark Potter was the sculptor of the benign
The facade has several important sculptures
including Frederick MacMonnies' "Beauty," shown at the
right, and George Grey Barnard's "Arts" and "History,"
on the south and north pediments, respectively.
Atop the handsome portico are inscriptions
about the library's three great benefactors: James Lenox (1800-1880)
who built the Lenox Library on the present site of the Frick Collection
on Fifth Avenue at 70th Street; Samuel Jones Tilden (1814-1886)
a former New York Governor and Democratic candidate for President
whose home on Gramercy Park is now the National Arts Club and
who left $5 million to found a free public Liberia; and John Jacob
Astor (1763-1848), who commissioned Washington Irving to write
the story of Astoria, his trading post in Oregon and who became
the richest man in the country and founded his own library on
Lafayette Place in 1852 that is now the New York Public Theater.
1897, the state approved city plans to replace the famous reservoir
that occupied the site of the present library and much of what
is now Bryant Park with a library and that year Carrère
& Hastings won a design competition for the new library and
McKim, Mead & White came in third and Howard & Cauldwell
came in second.
The exterior white marble came from Vermont
and two-thirds of it was rejected as not high enough quality.
The marble walls are one foot thick and the basement of the structure
has additional brick walls four feet thick.
According to Reed, architect Thomas Hastings
had urged that the library and the city buy the Fifth Avenue frontage
across from the library to a depth of 91 feet, the distance the
main building is set back from the avenue, in order to give it
a more important, ceremonial setting. Seen from 41st Street and
Madison or Park Avenue, the library is visually crunched by subsequent
development and Hastings unfulfilled wish was too modest, sadly.
The library opened May 23, 1911.
The dimensions of the library are impressive.
Astor Hall, the main lobby behind the portico, is about 76 by
47 feet with a vaulted ceiling more than 37 feet high. The sinuous
vaulted and the arched windows soften the space, as shown on the
previous page, and the abundance of white marble is reassuring.
Of interest is the robust and unusual balustrades of the twin
staircases at the north and south ends of the hall, especially
their rounded terminals.
Although it is impressive, the hall's lack
of major decoration and color makes it rather lifeless. One wishes
for some exuberant flamboyance of which the American Renaissance
was capable, but the overriding theme at the library is sober
and very Classical. Directly across from the main entrance is
Gottesman Hall, shown at the left, a large exhibition space that
has an attractive ceiling but some rather large obstacles in the
shape of groups of huge marble columns.
If one ascends to the third floor one finally
encounters some old-fashioned grandeur in the large hall that
is the vestibule for the Main Reading Room's catalogue room. This
"Landing Hall," shown above, is quite ornate, with stucco,
according to Reed, painted to look like rich woods, and murals
on printing themes by Edward Lanning in large arched panels. The
murals were painted as part of the Works Progress Administration
Project between 1932 and 1942 and are colorful, but uninspired
and Lanning is not a major artist. Across from the entrance to
the catalogue room on this level, however, is another exhibition
room full of portraits and the library's only truly important
American painting, "Kindred Spirits," a large landscape
by Asher B. Durand depicting William Cullen Bryant, the writer
after whom the adjacent park is named, and Thomas Cole, the founder
of the Hudson River School of American landscape painting talking
in an idyllic Catskill clove. In 2004, the library, sadly,
sold off "Kindred Spirits" to an heir to Walmart fortune.
If painting is not well represented at the
library, most of the other artistic crafts are and visitors should
look carefully at ceilings, doorknobs, fountains and furniture
and the like.
The Main Reading Room is, of course, the crowning
glory of the library, or should have been. It is divided into
a north and south wing with a center divider for the staff to
distribute books that come up in dumbwaiters from the miles of
stacks below and the center divider fortunately does not extend
to the ceiling.
The north wing of the Main Reading Room has
been cluttered with less than brilliantly designed modern technology,
but, fortunately, the south wing, shown below, remains very close
to the original: very, very large tables with shaded lamps for
the public's reading pleasure.
Ceiling murals had suffered badly over the
decades and by the 1990's had become barely discernible. Fortunately,
Fred Rose, one of the city's leading real estate developers and
philanthropists, came to the rescue and his family donated the
funds to restore this great and hallowed space. The room, which
can accommodate 636 readers, became known officially in November,
1998, as the Deborah, Jonathan F. P. Samuel Priest and Adam Raphael
Rose Main Reading Room in honor of the children of Sandra Priest
Rose and Frederick Phineas Rose.
In an excellent story that appeared in The
New York Times, Nov. 5, 1998, Julie V. Iovine quoted Paul LeClerc,
the library's president, as stating that the main reading room,
which is about the size of a football field and has 18 chandeliers,
"is the key symbolic space within a library that rivals the
great European libraries...and its essence is the most pluralistic,
democratic access imaginable. The only criterion one needs to
get in is curiosity."
The ceiling murals could not be restored but
the $15 million restoration painted new clouds. The room's large,
arched windows were clearned and the last traces of black-out
paint from World War II removed. The library has many specialized
departments with their own large rooms and varying degrees of
access and it also has a relatively ornate Trustees Room that
is not open to public.
The quality of sculpture at the library is
excellent as can be seen the photograph above of two female figures
on the Fifth Avenue facade.
The main building has two large courtyards
and the northern one is occupied by the recently restored glass
domed auditorium, a very gracious space.
The rear facade of the library facing Bryant
Park, which has been very nicely restored and improved, is a big
disappointment as it is large and graceless. A new restaurant
pavilion, shown above, opened in 1995 on the terrace overlooking
the park's great lawn and it has enlivened this area and because
it is freestanding has not detracted from the library building.
Despite the vastness of the library building, it only has one
men's room, on the third floor, but two ladies' rooms, one on
the third floor and one on the ground floor at the attractive
42nd Street entrance. In the early 1990's, the library succumbed
to commercialism and opened a small and attractive gift store
between Astor Hall and the north end of the first floor.
A December 20, 2007 article by Robin Pogrebin
in The New York Times noted that the library would embark
on a three-year restoration of its facade, stairs and plaza to
be completed for its centennial in 2011 and that the building
was being shrouded in netting for the renovation. The article
also said that the library asked for assistance from Francois
Jousse, a lighting expert in Paris, for the installation of lighting
"that will make the library an arresting spectacle at night."
The city will contribute $30 million toward the $50 million cost
of the renovations, the article stated, adding that "The
biggest challenge is cleaning the building's Vermont marble, repairing
nearly 3,000 cracks along with the roof, stairs and plaza and
restoring the building's sculptural elements....The restoration
design has been overseen by WJE Engineers and Architects, whose
previous projects include the Metropolitan Museum's limestone
facades and the American Museum of Natural History, made of granite."
The restoration will occur as the Bryant
Park neighborhood is changing dramatically with the recladding
of the former Verizon tower on the Avenue of the Americas, and
the erection of the Bank of America Tower on the northwest corner
of 42nd Street and the Avenue of the Americas.