west side of Fifth Avenue between 40th and 42nd Streets

Developer: The New York Public Library

Architect: Carrère & Hastings

Erected: 1911

New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue

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."

Main entrance hall

"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 grounds.

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 of Art.

One of the library's lionsSoapbox 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 lions.

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.

Fine sculpture just to the north of main Fifth Avenue entranceIn 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.

Main reading room looking north

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.

Female figures on Fifth Avenue facade

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.

Cafe at rear of library facing Bryant Park

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.

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