The Majestic New York Public Library

Places: New York Public Library; Bryant Park

The New York Public Library now has neighborhood branches sprinkled throughout the city, but its main library building (officially called the Stephen A. Schwarzman building, after a library trustee) on Fifth Avenue between 40th and 42nd Streets is the flagship of the New York Public Library System and is truly an architectural masterpiece. I work a few blocks away from the New York Public Library and, on lunch breaks, you can often find me with a bagel and a Gregory’s coffee (the best in the neighborhood!) sitting on the steps of the massive main library building. There is something special, and truly iconic, about this space in the middle of Manhattan.

A deeper look into the history of the library building uncovers a fascinating history of the location, and the building itself. The building was built on top of the Croton Reservoir (a remnant of the reservoir, built in 1842, can still be seen today on the foundation of the South Court!). Before it was a reservoir, the land was a potter’s field (1823-1840) and a Revolutionary War battlefield. Now, this chunk of land makes up the New York Public Library and its beautiful “backyard,” Bryant Park.

The cornerstone for the library building was laid in 1902, though the library didn’t open until 1911. It’s a small wonder that it took 9 years to open (and technically 16 years for “completion”) – the NYPL building was the largest marble structure ever attempted in the United States. It contains miles of shelves and millions of books. It took a whole year just to install the books, which came from the libraries of John Jacob Astor and James Lenox.

On May 23, 1911, President William Howard Taft and other dignitaries officially opened the library. The next day, the library was opened to the public – and 50,000 people visited the library that day! According to legend, an overachieving reader filed the first book request at 9:08 AM – a study of Nietzsche and Tolstoy. While that guy was reading about Nietzsche, the other visitors were probably preoccupied taking in the beautiful Beaux-Arts architecture and the impressive Rose Main Reading Room.

The Rose Main Reading Room is the highlight of the building. It takes up almost two city blocks and its ceiling is 52 feet high. It is the kind of place in which it is almost impossible to get any real work done, because you become entranced with the awe-inspiring elements of the space – the marble walls with enormous windows, the mural of clouds and plaster moldings on the ceiling, the 40,000 volumes lining the walls. Writers and scholars through the years have somehow managed to get things done in this space – notable authors such as Henry Miller and E.B. White have written in this room.

Note: A visitor to the New York Public Library between now and December 2014 will not be able to view this room since it is closed for inspection after a plaster rosette fell from the ceiling in May. (This closing isn’t all bad, since spaces usually closed to the public will be opened in an effort to add workspace!)

The iconic pair of lions on either side of the entrance stairway are the first thing most New Yorkers probably visualize when they think of the New York Public Library. I have always known the lions as Patience (he’s the one facing the library, on the south side) and Fortitude. Although these are the names most people know them by today, these names only originated in the 1930s with Mayor LaGuardia, who said that New Yorkers needed to possess both qualities to make it through the Great Depression. Before Patience and Fortitude, the lions were Leo Astor and Leo Lenox, after John Jacob Astor and James Lenox, founders of the New York Public Library. At some point, they became known as Lady Astor and Lord Lenox (a little rude, considering both lions are definitely boys!).

“A sectional view of the New York Public Library,” 1911, New York Public Library.

Although the library appears massive from the street level, there is a whole other level of the library unseen from the ground view – the underground stacks of the library. Although the imposing Beaux-Arts marble structure is impressive, the underground engineering is the real marvel of the building (and the one that is often ignored). There are seven tiers of stacks below the main library building. In 1991, more stacks were added underneath Bryant Park, behind the library. In total, the stacks underneath the library and the park comprise almost 80 miles (!) of book storage space…right under your feet.

You can take a free tour of the New York Public Library building at 11 AM or 2 PM Monday through Saturday to learn more about the library’s history, though you can wander around the library any time it’s open (it’s public!). In nice weather, grab a latte and a sandwich at ‘witchcraft in Bryant Park, find an outdoor table, and bask in the shadow of this New York City icon.

Until next time,

Lovely comments

  1. Lisa Stanger says

    Great blog! Can’t wait to read more as it develops 🙂


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