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The New York Public Library main branch facade along Fifth Avenue at its intersection with East 41st Street during night time in winter.
Credit to Vincent Desjardins the photographer.
Beaux-Arts architecture was the academic architectural style taught at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, particularly from the 1830s to the end of the 19th century. It drew upon the principles of French neoclassicism, but also incorporated Renaissance and Baroque elements, and used modern materials, such as iron and glass. It was an important style in France until the end of the 19th century.
The Beaux-Arts training emphasized the mainstream examples of Imperial Roman architecture between Augustus and the Severan emperors, Italian Renaissance, and French and Italian Baroque models especially, but the training could then be applied to a broader range of models: Quattrocento Florentine palace fronts or French late Gothic. American architects of the Beaux-Arts generation often returned to Greek models, which had a strong local history in the American Greek Revival of the early 19th century. For the first time, repertories of photographs supplemented meticulous scale drawings and on-site renderings of details.
The Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, commonly known as the Main Branch, 42nd Street Library or the New York Public Library, is the flagship building in the New York Public Library system in the Midtown Manhattan neighborhood of New York City. The branch, one of four research libraries in the library system, contains nine separate divisions. The structure contains four stories open to the public. The main entrance steps are at Fifth Avenue at its intersection with East 41st Street. As of 2015, the branch contains an estimated 2.5 million volumes in its stacks. The building was declared a National Historic Landmark, a National Register of Historic Places site, and a New York City designated landmark in the 1960s.
The Main Branch was built after the New York Public Library was formed as a combination of two libraries in the late 1890s. The site, along Fifth Avenue between 40th and 42nd Streets, is located directly east of Bryant Park, on the site of the Croton Reservoir. The architectural firm Carrère and Hastings constructed the structure in the Beaux-Arts style, and the structure opened on May 23, 1911. The marble facade of the building contains ornate detailing, and the Fifth Avenue entrance is flanked by a pair of stone lions that serve as the library's icon. The interior of the building contains the Main Reading Room, a space measuring 78 by 297 feet (24 by 91 m) with a 52-foot-high (16 m) ceiling; a Public Catalog Room; and various reading rooms, offices, and art exhibitions.
The Main Branch became popular after its opening and saw 4 million annual visitors by the 1920s. It formerly contained a circulating library, though the circulating division of the Main Branch moved to the nearby Mid-Manhattan Library in 1970. Additional space for the library's stacks was constructed under adjacent Bryant Park in 1991, and the branch's Main Reading Room was restored in 1998. A major restoration from 2007 to 2011 was underwritten by a $100 million gift from philanthropist Stephen A. Schwarzman, for whom the branch was subsequently renamed. The branch underwent another expansion starting in 2018. The Main Branch has been featured in many television shows and films.
The consolidation of the Astor and Lenox Libraries into the New York Public Library in 1895, along with a large bequest from Samuel J. Tilden and a donation of $5.2 million from Andrew Carnegie, allowed for the creation of an enormous library system. The libraries had a combined 350,000 items after the merger, which was relatively small compared to other library systems at the time. As a point of civic pride, the New York Public Library's founders wanted an imposing main branch. Several sites were considered, including those of the Astor and Lenox Libraries, but the trustees of the libraries ultimately chose a new site along Fifth Avenue between 40th and 42nd Streets, because it was centrally located between the Astor and Lenox Libraries. At the time, it was occupied by the obsolete Croton Reservoir, remnants of which still exist on the library floor. Dr. John Shaw Billings, who was named the first director of the New York Public Library, had created an early sketch for a massive reading room on top of seven floors of book-stacks, combined with the fastest system for getting books into the hands of those who requested to read them. His design for the new library formed the basis of the Main Branch. Once the Main Branch was opened, the Astor and Lenox Libraries were planned to close, and their functions were planned to be merged into that of the Main Branch.
In May 1897, the New York State Legislature passed a bill allowing the site of the Croton Reservoir to be used for a public library building. A competition among the city's most famous architects was subsequently held, and 88 designs were submitted. Of these, 12 were selected for a semi-finalist round, and three went on to a finalist round. Ultimately, in late 1897, the relatively unknown firm of Carrè re and Hastings was selected to design and construct the new library. The firm created a model for the future library building, which was exhibited at New York City Hall in 1900. Whether John Mervin Carrè re or Thomas S. Hastings contributed more to the design is in dispute, but both architects are honored with busts located at the bottoms of each of Astor Hall's two staircases. In a later interview with The New York Times, Carrè re stated that the library would contain "twenty-five or thirty different rooms", each with their own specialty; "eighty-three miles of books" in its stacks; and a general reading room that could fit a thousand guests.
In any case, construction itself was delayed by the objections of Mayor Robert Anderson Van Wyck, over concerns that the city's finances were unstable. A bond measure of $500,000 was allocated by the New York City Board of Estimate in May 1899. The next month, work started on the Croton Reservoir's excavation, and workers began digging through the reservoir's 25-foot-thick (7.6 m) wall. Work on the foundation commenced in May 1900, and by 1901, much of the Croton Reservoir had been excavated. In November 1900, work was hindered by a water main break that partly flooded the old reservoir. A contract to construct the building was awarded to the Norcross Brothers Company; this was initially controversial because the firm was not the lowest bidder. After a private ceremony to mark the start of construction was held in August 1902, a ceremonial cornerstone was laid on November 10, 1902. The cornerstone contained a box of artifacts from the library and the city. The construction of the Main Branch, along with that of the nearby Grand Central Terminal, helped to revitalize Bryant Park.
Work progressed gradually on the library; the basement was completed by 1903, and the first floor by 1904. However, exterior work was delayed, and when the Norcross Brothers' contract expired in August 1904, the exterior was only halfway completed. During the summer of 1905, giant columns were put into place and work on the roof was begun; the roof was finished by December 1906. The final remaining contracts, totaling $1.2 million, concerned the installation of furnishings in the interior. The contract for interior work was awarded to the John Peirce Company in April 1907, and the building's exterior was mostly done by the end of that year. The pace of construction was generally sluggish; in 1906, an official for the New York Public Library stated that some of the exterior and most of the interior was not finished.
Contractors started painting the main reading room and catalog room in 1908, and began installing furniture the following year. Starting in 1910, around 75 miles (121 km) worth of shelves were installed to hold the collections that were designated for being housed there, with substantial room left for future acquisitions. It took one year to transfer and install the books from the Astor and Lenox Libraries. Late in the construction process, a proposal to install a municipal light plant in the basement of the Main Branch was rejected. By late 1910, the library was nearly completed, and officials forecast an opening date of May 1911. Carrè re died before the building was opened, and in March 1911, two thousand people viewed his coffin in the library's rotunda.
On May 23, 1911, the main branch of the New York Public Library was ceremonially opened in front of 15,000 guests. The ceremony was presided over by President William Howard Taft and was attended by Governor John Alden Dix and Mayor William Jay Gaynor. The following day, May 24, the public was invited, and tens of thousands went to the Library's "jewel in the crown." The first item called for was Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare Unfolded by Delia Bacon, although the book was not actually in the Main Branch's collection at the time; this later turned out to be a publicity stunt. The first item actually delivered was N. I. Grot's Nravstvennye idealy nashego vremeni ("Ethical Ideas of Our Time"), a study of Friedrich Nietzsche and Leo Tolstoy. The reader filed his slip at 9:08 a.m. and received his book seven minutes later.
The Beaux-Arts Main Branch was the largest marble structure up to that time in the United States, with 3.5 million volumes spread across 375,000 square feet (34,800 m2). The projected final cost was $10 million, excluding the cost of the books and the land, representing a fourfold increase over the initial cost estimate of $2.5 million. The structure ultimately cost $9 million to build, over three times as much as originally projected. Because there were so many visitors during the first week of the Main Branch's opening, the New York Public Library's directors initially did not count the number of visitors, but guessed that 250,000 patrons were accommodated during the first week.
The Main Branch came to be regarded as an architectural landmark. As early as 1911, Harper's Monthly magazine praised the architecture of "this interesting and important building". In 1971, New York Times architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable wrote, "As urban planning, the library still suits the city remarkably well" and praised its "gentle monumentality and knowing humanism".
The Main Branch also took on importance as a major research center. Norbert Pearlroth, who served as a researcher for the Ripley's Believe It or Not! book series, perused an estimated 7,000 books annually from 1923 to 1975. Other patrons included First Lady of the United States Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis; writers Alfred Kazin, Norman Mailer, Frank McCourt, John Updike, Cecil Beaton, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and E. L. Doctorow; actors Helen Hayes, Marlene Dietrich, Lillian Gish, Diana Rigg, and Princess Grace Kelly of Monaco; playwright Somerset Maugham; film producer Francis Ford Coppola; journalists Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and Tom Wolfe; and boxer Joe Frazier. The Main Branch was also used for major works and invention. Edwin Land conducted research at the building for his later invention, the Land Camera, while Chester Carlson invented Xerox photocopiers after researching photoconductivity and electrostatics at the library. During World War II, American soldiers decoded a Japanese cipher based on a Mexican phone book whose last remaining copy among Allied nations existed at the Main Branch.
Initially, the Main Branch was opened at 1 p.m. on Sundays and 9 a.m. on all other days, and it closed at 10 p.m. each day. This was to encourage patrons to use the new library. By 1926, the library was heavily patronized, with up to 1,000 people per hour requesting books. The library was most used between 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. and 3:30 to 5:50 p.m., and from October through May. The most highly requested books were those for economics and American and English literature, though during World War I geography books were the most demanded because of the ongoing war. It was estimated that 4 million people per year used the Main Branch in 1928, up from 2 million in 1918 and 3 million in 1926. There were 1.3 million books requested by nearly 600,000 people through call slips in 1927. By 1934, though annual patronage held steady at 4 million visitors, the Main Branch had 3.61 million volumes in its collection.
Due to the increased demand for books, new shelves were installed in the stockrooms and the cellars by the 1920s to accommodate the expanded stacks. However, this still proved to be insufficient. The New York Public Library announced an expansion of the Main Branch in 1928. Thomas Hastings prepared plans for new wings near the north and south sides of the structure, which would extend eastward toward Fifth Avenue, as well as a storage annex in Bryant Park to the west. The expansion was planned to cost $2 million, but was never built. After Hastings died in 1929, it was revealed that his will contained $100,000 for modifications to the facade, with which he had been dissatisfied.
A theater collection was installed in the Main Reading Room in 1933. Two years later, the Bryant Park Open-Air Reading Room was established, operating during the summer. The reading room was meant to improve the morale of readers during the Great Depression, and it operated until 1943, when it closed down due to a shortage of librarians. In 1936, library trustee George F. Baker gave the Main Branch forty issues of the New-York Gazette from the 18th century, which had not been preserved anywhere else. In 1937, the doctors Albert and Henry Berg made an offer to the library's trustees to donate their collections of rare English and American literature. After Henry died, the collection was dedicated in his memory. The Berg Reading Room was formally dedicated in October 1940.
During the 1930s, Works Progress Administration (WPA) workers helped maintain the Main Branch. Their tasks included upgrading the heating, ventilation, and lighting systems; refitting the treads on the branch's marble staircases; painting the bookshelves, walls, ceilings, and masonry; and general upkeep. The WPA allocated $2.5 million for the building's maintenance. In January 1936, it was announced that the Main Branch's roof would be renovated as part of a seven-month WPA project.
In 1942, the main exhibition room was converted into office space and partitioned off. During World War II, the fifteen large windows in the Main Reading Room were blacked out, though they were later uncovered. In the following years, the Main Reading Room became neglected: broken lighting fixtures were not replaced, and the room's windows were never cleaned. Unlike during World War I, war-related books at the Main Branch did not become popular during World War II. A room for members of the United States Armed Forces was opened in 1943. In 1944, the New York Public Library proposed another expansion plan. The stacks' capacity would be increased to 3 million books, and the circulating library in the Main Branch would be moved to a new 53rd Street Library. The circulating library at the Main Branch was ultimately kept for the time being, though its single room soon became insufficient to host all of the circulating volumes. Subsequently, in 1949, the library asked the city to take over responsibility for the Main Branch's circulating and children's libraries. As part of the modernization of the Main Branch, newly delivered books started being processed in that building, rather than at various circulation branch libraries.
The rear of the library's main hall was partitioned off in 1950, creating a bursar's office measuring 42 by 13 ft (12.8 by 4.0 m). Minor repairs at the Main Branch occurred during the 1960s. The city government allocated money for the installation of fire sprinklers in the main branch's stacks in 1960. In 1964 contracts were awarded for the installation of a new floor level above the south corridor on the first floor, as well as for replacement of the skylights. By the mid-1960s, the branch contained 7 million volumes and had outgrown its 88 miles (142 km) of stacks.
The circulating facilities at the Main Branch continued to grow, and in 1961, the New York Public Library convened a group of six librarians to look for a new facility for the circulating department. The library bought the Arnold Constable & Company department store at 8 East 40th Street, at the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 40th Street across from the Main Branch. The Main Branch's circulating collection was moved to the Mid-Manhattan Library in 1970.
During the 1970s, the New York Public Library as a whole experienced financial troubles, which were exacerbated by the 1975 New York City fiscal crisis. As a cost-cutting measure, in 1970, the library decided to close the Main Branch during Sundays and holidays. The library also closed the Main Branch's science and technology division in late 1971 to save money, but private funds allowed the division to reopen in January 1972. The lions in front of the Main Branch's main entrance were restored in 1975. By the end of the decade, the Main Branch was in disrepair and the NYPL trustees were raising money for the research library's continued upkeep. The NYPL system was so short on funds that the research library was only open 43 hours a week until 1979, when Time Inc. and the Grace Krieble Delmas Foundation jointly donated $750,000 to extend the branch's operating hours.
Vartan Gregorian took over as president of the New York Public Library in 1981. At the time, many of the Main Branch's interior spaces had been subdivided and extensively modified, with offices in many of the spaces. The main exhibition room had been turned into an accounting office; the reading room's furniture had metal brackets screwed onto them; and there were lights, wires, and ducts hung throughout the space. Gregorian organized events to raise money for the library, which helped raise funds for the cleaning of the facade and the renovation of the lobby, roof, and lighting system. Architectural firm Davis Brody & Associates, architect Giorgio Cavaglieri, and architectural consultant Arthur Rosenblatt devised a master plan for the library. Before the master plan was implemented, the D. S. and R. H. Gottesman Foundation gave $1.25 million in December 1981 for the restoration of the main exhibition room, which was redesigned by Davis Brody and Cavaglieri.
Workers erected a temporary construction fence around the library's terraces in 1982. As part of a greater renovation of Bryant Park, Laurie Olin and Davis Brody redesigned the terraces, while Hugh Hardy redesigned the kiosks within the terraces. Several rooms were restored as part of the plan. The first space to be renovated, the periodical room, was completed in 1983 with a $20 million gift from Reader's Digest editor DeWitt Wallace. The exhibition room reopened in May 1984 and was renamed the Gottesman Exhibition Hall. The Catalog Room was restored starting in 1983. Ten million catalog cards, many of which were tattered, were replaced with photocopies that had been created over six years at a cost of $3.3 million. In addition, room 80 was renovated into a lecture hall called the Celeste Bartos Forum in 1987. Offices were relocated to former storage rooms on the ground level. Other divisions were added to the Main Branch during the 1980s, such as the Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle in 1986, and the Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs in 1987. The terraces on Fifth Avenue reopened in 1988 after they were restored.
Meanwhile, the library was adding 150,000 volumes to its collections annually, which could not fit within the stacks of the existing building. In the late 1980s, the New York Public Library decided to expand the Main Branch's stacks to the west, underneath Bryant Park. The project was originally estimated to cost $21.6 million and would be the largest expansion project in the Main Branch's history. It was approved by the city's Art Commission in January 1987, and construction on the stacks started in July 1988. The expansion required that Bryant Park be closed to the public and then excavated, but because the park had grown dilapidated over the years, the stack-expansion project was seen as an opportunity to rebuild the park. The library added more than 120,000 square feet (11,000 m2) of storage space and 84 miles (135 km) of bookshelves under Bryant Park, doubling the length of the stacks in the Main Branch. The space could accommodate 3.2 million books and a half-million reels of microfilm. The new stacks were connected to the Main Branch via a tunnel measuring 62 ft (19 m) or 120 ft (37 m) long. Once the underground facilities were completed, Bryant Park was completely rebuilt, with 2.5 or 6 feet (0.76 or 1.83 m) of earth between the park surface and the storage facility's ceiling. The extension was opened in September 1991 at a cost of $24 million; however, it only included one of two planned levels of stacks. Bryant Park was reopened in mid-1992 after a three-year renovation.
The Catalog Room was renamed in 1994 for fashion designer Bill Blass, who gave $10 million to the NYPL. The Main Reading Room was closed in July 1997 for renovations designed by Davis Brody Bond. The restoration entailed cleaning and repainting the ceiling, cleaning the windows, refinishing the wood, and removing partitions within the room. Workers also replaced desk lamps and installed energy-efficient window panes. The space was renamed the Rose Main Reading Room, after the children of a benefactor who had given $15 million toward the renovation. The Reading Room reopened on November 16, 1998. The same year, the New York State government allocated funding for the Main Branch to install computers and other electronic devices. The Reading Room received new workstations, and the space was also redecorated to accommodate patrons' laptops. The bungalow in the Library's South Court was taken apart the same year.
A four-story glass structure was erected on the site of the South Court, an enclosed courtyard on the Main Branch's south side, starting in the late 1990s. The structure cost $22.2 million and included a floor area of 42,220 square feet (3,922 m2). Opened in 2002, the South Court structure was the first permanent above-ground addition to the Main Branch since its opening. The pop-up reading room in Bryant Park was re-established in summer 2003. The "room" contained 700 books and 300 periodicals.
By 2004, streaks were already blackening the white marble and pollution and moisture were corroding the ornamental statuary. According to The New York Times, "tiny particles of rubber scattered by passing car tires have accumulated on the building, mixing gradually with water to turn the marble into gypsum, which causes the outer layer to crumble in a sugaring effect." In December 2005, the Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division space, with richly carved wood, marble, and metalwork, was restored.
In 2007, the library announced that it would undertake a three-year, $50 million renovation of the building exterior, which had suffered damage from weathering and automobile exhaust. The marble structure and its sculptural elements were to be cleaned; three thousand cracks were to be repaired; and various components would be restored. All of the work was scheduled to be completed by the centennial in 2011. Library director Paul LeClerc said in 2007 that "my ambition is for this to be the building you simply must see in New York at nighttime because it is so beautiful and it is so important." By late 2007, library officials had not yet decided whether to try to restore damaged sculptural elements or just clean and "stabilize" them. Cleaning would be done either with lasers or by applying poultices and peeling them off.
Stephen A. Schwarzman donated $100 million toward the renovation and expansion of the building, and in April 2008, the library announced that the main branch building would be renamed in his honor. As a condition of the gift, Schwarzman's name would be displayed at each public entrance. Later that year, British architect Norman Foster was chosen to design the Main Branch's renovation. To pay for the renovations, the New York Public Library was attempting to sell the Mid-Manhattan and Donnell branches, the latter of which had already found a buyer. Nicolai Ouroussoff, former architecture critic for The New York Times, opined that Foster's selection was "one of a string of shrewd decisions by the library that should put our minds at ease".
By 2010, while renovations on the Main Branch were ongoing, the New York Public Library had cut back its staff and budget in other branches following the Great Recession of 2008. In 2012, a Central Library Plan was announced, in which the nearby Mid-Manhattan Library and Science, Industry and Business Library would be closed, and that the Main Branch would be turned into a circulating library. As part of the plan, over a million books would have been put into storage in the Research Collections and Preservation Consortium (ReCAP) warehouse in New Jersey, shared with Princeton University and Columbia University. Although some critics praised the plan as a move that would allow visitors to make greater use of the Main Branch's research facilities, a majority spoke out against it, with one editorial deriding it as "cultural vandalism". Academics, writers, architects and civic leaders signed a letter of protest against the plan, and Princeton history professor Anthony Grafton wrote that "readers who want to consult a book will often have to order it in advance—and may find, as readers sometimes do here, that real delivery times are slower than advertised ones." After a protracted six-year battle, and two public interest lawsuits, the Central Library Plan was abandoned in May 2014 due to pressure by its opponents and the election of Bill de Blasio as mayor. Subsequently, an $8 million gift from Abby and Howard Milstein helped fund the renovation of the second level of stacks beneath Bryant Park, so that they could be used to store the books. The controversy was damaging to the reputation of not only the library's board, but of its president, Anthony Marx. In a book about the drawn out, often secretive initiatives to sell real estate and remove the heart of a treasured landmark, Scott Sherman concluded that Marx and his wealthy supporters "lacked prudence: they applied radical, free market solutions to complex institutional problems. In the end, elected officials in New York City had to save the NYPL from its own trustees."
In May 2014, one of the "gilded-plaster rosettes" in the ceiling of the Rose Main Reading Room fell to the floor. The NYPL closed the Rose Main Reading Room and the Public Catalog Room for renovations. The $12 million restoration project included restoring the rosettes and supporting them with steel cables, as well as installing LED lamp fixtures. The NYPL commissioned EverGreene Architectural Arts to recreate the mural in the Bill Blass Public Catalog Room, which had "suffered irreparable discoloration, overpainting and water damage" during its 105-year history. The NYPL also replaced its historic chain-and-lift book conveyor system with a new delivery system using "book trains". The restored Rose Main Reading Room and Bill Blass Public Catalog Room reopened on October 5, 2016.
Starting in August 2017, the Main Branch temporarily hosted an interim circulating library at 42nd Street. The interim library was to hold part of the collection of the Mid-Manhattan Library while the Mid-Manhattan building was closed for renovations, which were scheduled to be completed in 2020. The Mid-Manhattan Branch's collection of pictures was also temporarily relocated to the Main Branch until the circulating library reopened in 2020.
In November 2017, the New York Public Library board approved a $317 million master plan for the Main Branch, which would be the largest renovation in the branch's history. The plan, designed by architecture firms Mecanoo and Beyer Blinder Belle, would increase publicly available space by 20 percent, add a new entrance at 40th Street, create the Center for Research and Learning for high-school and college students, add elevator banks, and expand space for exhibitions and researchers. At the time of approval, $308 million of funds had been raised, and construction was expected to be completed in 2021. The renovations began in July 2018 with the start of construction on the Lenox and Astor Room, a scholar's center, on the second floor. The Landmarks Preservation Commission approved the 40th Street entrance with minor modifications in March 2019. That August, the NYPL announced that the lions outside the Main Branch's front entrance would be restored in September and October at a cost of $250,000.
There are nine divisions at the New York Public Library's Main Branch, of which eight are special collections.
The General Research Division is the main division of the Main Branch and the only one that is not a special collection. The division is based out of the Rose Main Reading Room and the Bill Blass Public Catalog Room. The division contains 43 million items in more than 430 languages.Milstein Division of U.S. History, Local History and Genealogy
The Irma and Paul Milstein Division of U.S. History, Local History and Genealogy houses one of the largest publicly available genealogical collections in North America. Though the division contains many New York City-related documents, it also contains documents collected from towns, cities, counties, and states across the U.S., as well as genealogies from around the world. The division acquired the holdings of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society in 2008.
The Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division was created in 1898. It contains more than 20,000 atlases and 433,000 sheet maps, dating to as early as the 16th century. The collection includes maps on local, regional, national, and global scales as well as city maps, topographic maps, and maps in antiquarian and digitized formats.
The Manuscripts and Archives Division comprises over 5,500 collections. These include, 700 cuneiform tablets, 160 illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods, notable people's and entities' papers, publishing archives, social and economics collections, and papers about the New York Public Library's history. The division supplements similar divisions at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, and the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.
The Dorot Jewish Division contains documents about Jewish subjects and the Hebrew language. The division, founded in 1897, contains documents and books from the Astor and Lenox Libraries; the Aguilar Free Library; and the private collections of Leon Mandelstamm, Meyer Lehren, and Isaac Meyer. The division is named for the Dorot Foundation, who made a formal endowment for the Chief of Division in 1986.
The Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature contains rare books, first editions, and manuscripts in English and American literature. The collection includes over 35,000 works from 400 individual authors. The collection was created in 1940 with a donation from Albert Berg in memory of his brother Henry, and was formally endowed in 1941. The initial collection comprised 3,500 books and pamphlets created by over 100 authors. An additional 15,000 works came from Owen D. Young, who donated his private collection to the library in 1941.
The Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle is a collection of around 25,000 works from the English Romanticism genre, created in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was donated by the estate of oil financier Carl Pforzheimer in 1986. According to the New York Public Library's website, the collection contains works from English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley; Shelley's second wife Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and her family members, including William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Claire Clairmont; and other contemporaries including "Lord Byron, Teresa Guiccioli, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, Leigh Hunt, Thomas Love Peacock, Horace Smith, and Edward John Trelawny".
The Rare Book Division requires pre-registration for researchers before they are allowed to enter. The collection includes 800 incunable works published in Europe before 1501, Americana published before 1801, and American newspapers published before 1865, as well as over 20,000 broadsides, old atlases, and works about voyages. The division also contains rare Bibles, including the first Gutenberg Bible to be brought to the U.S., the first Native American language Bible, and the first Bible created in the U.S. In addition, it includes first editions and copies from notable writers, including William Shakespeare, copies of The Pilgrim's Progress printed before 1700, Voltaire's entire work, and Walt Whitman's personal copies of his own work. The division houses rare artifacts as well, such as the first book printed in North America and the first English-language book printed in the U.S.
The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs was created by a gift of the Wallach family in 1987. The collection includes over one million works of art as well as 700,000 monographs and periodicals.
The New York Public Library's Main Branch measures 390 feet (120 m) on its north–south axis by 270 feet (82 m) on its west–east axis. The library is located on the east side of the block bounded by Fifth Avenue on the east, 40th Street on the south, Sixth Avenue on the west, and 42nd Street on the east. The north end of the building sits above entrances to the Fifth Avenue station of the New York City Subway, serving the 7 and <7> trains. The station was built as part of the Interborough Rapid Transit Company's Flushing Line, and was opened in 1926 with a ceremony at the Main Branch.
The marble on the library building is about three feet thick, and the structure is composed entirely of Vermont marble and brick. Most of the exterior of the building is made of white Vermont marble, which includes both perpendicular and parallel cuts. The lowest section of the walls is made of granite, and there are also bronze windows, doors, grilles, and fixtures. Tennessee marble was used for the library's flagpole pedestals, seats, and lion sculptures. During construction, the builders conducted quality checks on the marble, and 65 percent of the marble quarried for the Main Branch was rejected and used in other buildings such as Harvard Medical School. The exterior is composed of 20,000 blocks of stone, each of which is numbered. An elaborate cornice with sculpted figures wraps around the top of the structure's exterior.
The Main Branch faces Fifth Avenue to the east. The alcoves on the Fifth Avenue facade contained figures sculpted by Frederic MacMonnies called "Beauty" and "Truth". These figures sit above small fountains inside the alcoves. They were shut off from 1942 and 1957, and again from the 1980s to 2015. George Grey Barnard also designed pediments for sculptures to be installed above the main entrance, representing "Life" and "Painting and Sculpture". When the sculptures were erected in 1915, he unsuccessfully sued the installers for $50,000 because they did not fit with his vision. A balcony wraps along the Fifth Avenue elevation. The present design of the balcony dates to 1988, when it was resurfaced with granite, bluestone, and cobblestones. The balcony contains movable chairs and tables. Along the eastern edge of the balcony are two rows of Japanese locust trees.
The Fifth Avenue entrance is reached by a grand marble stairway extending west from the avenue's intersection with 41st Street. It ascends to a pavilion underneath a portico with six Corinthian columns and three archways. These lead to the first floor of the structure, which is actually one story above ground level. On either side of the Fifth Avenue entrance pavilion, there are alcoves with sculptures of figures inside them, as well as five arched windows on the first floor.
Two lion sculptures, made of Tennessee marble and sculpted by the Piccirilli Brothers based on a design by Edward Clark Potter, flank the stairway. According to one legend, the lions flank the steps so patrons could read "between the lions". They are a trademark of the New York Public Library, which uses a single stone lion as its logo. Their original names, "Leo Astor" and "Leo Lenox" (in honor of the library's founders) were transformed into Lord Astor and Lady Lenox (although both lions are male), and in the 1930s they were nicknamed "Patience" and "Fortitude" by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who chose the names because he felt that the citizens of New York would need to possess these qualities to see themselves through the Great Depression. Patience is on the south side, to the left of the entrance stairway, and Fortitude on the north, to the right. The lions were restored in 1975 and in 2007–2011, and they were set to be restored once again in late 2019.
The northern and southern facades of the building are located along 42nd and 40th Streets, respectively. The northern side contains an entrance to the ground level and the temporary Mid-Manhattan branch, while the southern side does not contain a public entrance. These entrances are flanked by flagpoles whose sculpted bronze bases were designed in 1912 by Thomas Hastings. They were realized by the sculptor Raffaele Menconi, who often worked closely with New York architects of the Beaux-Arts generation and had a deft command of the 16th-century Italian Mannerist classical idiom that was required by Hastings's design. The bronzes were cast at Tiffany Studios in Long Island City. They were rededicated to New York's former Reform mayor, John Purroy Mitchell, in 1941.
The building contained an enclosed courtyard on its south side called the South Court, measuring 80 by 80 feet (24 by 24 m). It was originally a drop-off location for horse carriages. The court contained a marble fountain and horse trough, with a bungalow erected in 1919 as an employees' break area. The fountain was destroyed in 1950 and replaced with a parking lot, and the bungalow was taken apart in 1998. A six-story glass structure was erected on the site of the South Court, opening in 2002. The current structure measures 73 by 73 feet (22 by 22 m) and is connected to the rest of the library building via glass bridges. Below the South Court structure is a 174-seat auditorium, accessed via a glass staircase cut into the original basement. The first story contains the Bartos Education Center, with two classrooms and an orientation theater. The second through fourth floors contain offices, and the fourth floor also contains a quiet room and staff lounge.
The west side, which faces Bryant Park, contains "tall, narrow windows" that provide views into the stacks inside the Main Branch. The narrow windows allow light to enter the stacks below the third-floor Rose Main Reading Room. Above the tall windows, near the top of the facade, are nine large arched windows that illuminate the reading room itself. Near the top of the facade are eight doorways with pediments, which were part of the original design, though NYPL staff were unable to ascertain why these doorways were built.
The interior of the Main Branch consists of four publicly accessible floors: the ground level and the first through third floors. On each floor, there is a corridor on the eastern side of the main building, which runs the length of the building from north to south. Originally, the interior collectively contained more than 200 rooms, and the building had a footprint of 115,000 square feet (10,700 m2). Generally, lower room numbers are located on the south side of the building, and higher room numbers on the north side. There is a pair of public stairways on the north side of the building, which lead between the ground and third floors; the stairs share landings in the middle of each flight. The interior contains ornate detail from Carrè re and Hastings, which extended to such minute details as doorknobs and wastebaskets.
The cellar, which is not open to the public, was initially used as a mechanical plant and contains remnants of the original Croton Reservoir. The western side of the building, from the cellar to the second floor, contains part of the Main Branch's storage stacks. Supplementing the Main Reading Room on the third floor, there are 21 other reading rooms in the Main Branch, including a ground-floor room with a cast-iron ceiling. There were originally 1,760 seats in all of the reading rooms combined, of which 768 were located in the Main Reading Room.
The ground floor contains the entrance to 42nd Street. Originally it contained a coat-check, circulating library, newspaper room, and children's-book room. There were also spaces for telephones, a "library-school office", and a "travelling-library office". The former newspaper room in room 78 became the children's-book room, and the former children's-book room in room 81 is not open to the public.
Room 80 operated as the circulating library from 1911 to 1981. It measures 80 by 80 feet (24 by 24 m) across. The glass ceiling measures 30 feet (9.1 m) tall and is supported by four iron arches; it was covered by a dropped ceiling for much of the mid-20th century. Since 1987, room 80 has been the Bartos Forum, a 400-seat lecture room. Most of the Bartos Forum's original design remains in place, but the floors have been covered with carpets and the perimeter skylights have been sealed.
Above the ground floor is the first floor. The staircase entrance from Fifth Avenue opens up into the first-floor lobby, known as Astor Hall. This floor contains the Picture Collection (room 100), Wallace Periodical Room (room 108), and Jewish Division (room 111, former Periodicals Room) on the south side. On the north side are the Milstein Division (room 121, former Patents Room), Milstein Microforms (room 119), and Map Division (room 117). The Wachenheim Gallery, the library shop, the Bartos Education Center, and the Gottesman Hall (room 111, former Exhibition Room) are located in rooms that open into Astor Hall. The first floor also formerly contained various supervisors' offices, a library for the blind, and a technology room.
Astor Hall is the first-floor lobby, reached from the portico at the top of the Fifth Avenue stairs. The hall measures 70 by 44 feet (21 by 13 m) and is clad in stone. The ceiling is a 34-foot-high (10 m) shallow barrel vault with arch openings on the sides. The names of major donors are inscribed on the pillars in Astor Hall. Astor Hall also includes a booth where visitors can sign up for free guided tours of the building.
Two grand marble staircases on the north and south sides of Astor Hall ascend to the second floor. At the second floor, a mezzanine level overlooks the west side of the first-floor lobby. The staircases ascend several steps, perpendicular to and away from the hall, before turning 90 degrees westward at a landing and ascending parallel to each other toward the second floor. There are bronze busts of Carrè re and Hastings, created in 1940 and 1935 respectively, at the landings of the stairways. The Carrè re bust is near the south (left) stair, while the Hastings bust is near the north (right) stair. At the second floor, another pair of staircases continues to the McGraw Rotunda on the third floor.
The Wallace Periodical Room in room 108 has been named for Reader's Digest founder DeWitt Wallace since 1983. It consists of current issues from 200 periodicals and 22 newspapers. The current design of the room dates from a renovation in the 1980s. The Periodical Room contains 13 murals of scenes from the history of New York City, which were designed by Richard Haas, The original design included cast-iron radiators, which were replaced with an air-circulation system under the windows. In addition, the room contains bronze chandeliers and sculptured ceilings.
Behind Astor Hall's information desk is the Gottesman Exhibition Hall. It served as the Main Branch's primary display area from 1911 to 1942 and was subsequently divided into offices. The space reopened in 1984. The Gottesman Exhibition Hall is made of Vermont marble and is accessed by large bronze doors. The room measures 83 by 77 feet (25 by 23 m) across and 18 feet (5.5 m) high. The room contains Vermont marble pilasters and columns, as well as bronze and leaded glass chandeliers hanging from a carved-oak ceiling.
The second floor contains the Jill Kupin Rose Gallery, which contains ongoing exhibitions. This floor contains several small rooms extending to the north, west, and south. One of these is the Wachenheim Trustees' Room, which contains wood paneling, parquet floors, and a fireplace made of white marble. Originally, this level contained director's and assistant director's offices; the Slavonic, Jewish, and Oriental Collections; and rooms for science, economics and sociology, and public documents. The former science room at room 225 is now the Cullman Center, while room 228, the former economics and sociology room, has been split into two rooms.
The McGraw Rotunda is on the east side of the building's third floor. The Print Gallery extends south from the rotunda; one publicly accessible room, the Wallach Division, is adjacent to the gallery. Similarly, the Stokes Gallery extends northward, with the Berg and Pforzheimer Collections branching off of it. The Salomon Room branches off the McGraw Rotunda to the east. To the west is the Bill Blass Public Catalog Room, which leads into the large Rose Main Reading Room.
The McGraw Rotunda (formerly Central Hall) is a rectangular barrel-vaulted space on the third floor, at the top of the stairs from Astor Hall. Two passageways lead northward and southward from the rotunda. The Public Catalog Room is to the west and the Salomon Room is to the east. The entrances to both rooms are flanked by freestanding marble pedestals. The floors are made of Hauteville and Gray Siena marble. The rotunda's walls contain red marble bases with dark wood piers supporting a plaster or stucco barrel vault. On the north and south ends of the barrel vault are glazed open windows. There are alcoves on the side walls, supported by columns with Corinthian capitals, which were intended to contain murals. The rotunda also includes a booth where visitors can sign up for free guided tours of the Rose Main Reading Room.
The rotunda contains a set of panels painted by Edward Laning in the early 1940s as part of a WPA project. The work includes four large panels, two lunettes above doorways to the Public Catalog and Salomon Rooms, and a ceiling mural painted on the barrel vault. The four panels are located on the east and west walls and depict the development of the written word. The lunette above the Public Catalog Room's doorway is "Learning to Read", and the lunette about the Salomon Room's doorway is "The Student". The ceiling mural is called "Prometheus Bringing Fire to Men". The four panels and two lunettes were completed in 1940, and the ceiling mural was completed in 1942.
The Main Branch's Deborah, Jonathan F. P., Samuel Priest, and Adam R. Rose Main Reading Room, officially Room 315 and commonly known as the Rose Main Reading Room, is located on the third floor of the Main Branch. The room is 78 by 297 feet (24 by 91 m) with a 52-foot-high ceiling. Characterized by Robert A. M. Stern as one of the United States' largest column-free rooms, it is nearly as large as the Main Concourse at Grand Central Terminal. It was originally described as being in the Renaissance architectural style, but Matthew Postal described the room as having a Beaux-Arts design. Half of the space was used as an office and service center prior to the late 1990s. The Main Reading Room was renovated and renamed for the Rose family in 1998–1999; and further renovations to its ceiling were completed in 2016. The room became a New York City designated landmark in 2017.
The room is separated into two sections of equal size by a book-delivery desk. The desk is made of oak and is covered by a canopy, with arches held up by Tuscan columns. The north hall leads to the Manuscripts and Archives Reading Room, while the south hall leads to the Art and Architecture Reading Room; picture taking is only allowed in a small section of the south hall. The doorways into the Main Reading Room contain large round pediments, which contrast with the smaller triangular pediments in the branch's other reading rooms. There is intricate detail on the room's smaller metalwork, such as doorknobs and hinges. The floors of the Main Reading Room and the connected Catalog Room are composed of red tiles, with marble pavers set in between the tiles, which indicate how the furniture should be arranged. The marble pavers demarcate the boundaries of the aisles.
The Main Reading Room is furnished with low wooden tables and chairs, with four evenly-spaced brass lamps on each table. There are two arrays of tables in each hall, separated by a wide aisle. The tables each measure 23 by 4 feet (7.0 by 1.2 m). Originally, there were 768 seats, but this was reduced to 490 in the late 20th century. The seating capacity has since been increased to 624 or 636. Each spot at each table is assigned a number. The room is also equipped with desktop computers providing access to library collections and the Internet, as well as docking facilities for laptops. The NYPL installed 48 desktop computers near the central book-delivery desk. Thirty of the room's forty-two wooden tables have power outlets, while twelve of the tables have no outlets and are intended only for reading. Readers may fill out forms requesting books brought to them from the library's closed stacks, which are delivered to the indicated seat numbers.
Surrounding the room are thousands of reference works on open shelves along the room's main and balcony levels, which may be read openly. At the time of the library's opening, there were about 25,000 freely accessible reference works on the shelves. There are three levels of bookshelves: two on the main floor beneath the balcony, and one on the balcony. Above the top level of shelves is a duct carrying wiring and cables for the room.
The walls are made of Caen stone and are designed to resemble limestone. Massive windows and grand chandeliers illuminate the space. There are eighteen grand archways, of which fifteen contain windows: nine face Bryant Park to the west, and six face east. The other three archways form a wall with the Public Catalog Room to its east, and the middle archway contains windows that face into the Catalog Room. Each window contains low emissivity glass. There are two rows of nine chandeliers in the Main Reading Room. These were originally fitted with incandescent light bulbs, an innovation at the time of the library's opening, and were powered by the library's own power plant. The lights on the chandeliers are arranged like an inverted cone, with four tiers of light bulbs.
The plaster ceiling is painted to emulate gilded wood, with moldings of classical and figurative details. The Klee-Thomson Company plastered the ceiling. According to Matthew Postal, the moldings include "scroll cartouches bordered by cherubs, nude female figures with wings, cherub heads, satyr masks, vases of fruit, foliate moldings, and disguised ventilation grilles." The moldings frame a three-part mural, created by James Wall Finn and completed in 1911. Though no clear photographs exist of the mural's original appearance, the mural in its present incarnation depicts clouds and sky. When the ceiling was restored in 1998, the original mural was deemed to be unsalvageable, and Yohannes Aynalem instead painted a reproduction. The ceiling was restored again from 2014 to 2016.
The Bill Blass Public Catalog Room, also located in Room 315, is adjacent to the Main Reading Room, connecting it with the McGraw Rotunda. The Catalog Room's central location between the McGraw Rotunda and Main Reading Room makes it a de facto foyer for the latter. The room measures 81 by 77 feet (25 by 23 m). Similar to the Main Reading Room, it has a 52-foot-high ceiling. Four chandeliers, of identical design to those in the Main Reading Room, hang from the ceiling. The ceiling of the Public Catalog Room also contains a 27-by-33-foot (8.2 by 10.1 m) section of James Wall Finn's 1911 mural.
Possibly the first renovation of the Catalog Room occurred in 1935, when its ceiling was repainted. Further modifications occurred in 1952 when metal cabinets replaced the original oak cabinets as a result of the catalog room's quick expansion, with 150,000 new catalog cards being added each year. The Catalog Room was restored in 1983 and renamed for Bill Blass in 1994. Computers were added following the 1980s expansion.
There is an information desk on the north side on the room, on one's right side when entering from the rotunda. Originally, visitors would receive card slips with numbers on them and then be directed to one of the Main Reading Room's halves based on their card number. The Public Catalog Room also contains waist-high oak desks. These desks contain computers that allow New York Public Library cardholders to search the library's catalog.
The Edna Barnes Salomon Room, located east of the McGraw Rotunda in Room 316, is usually utilized as an event space. The 4,500-square-foot (420 m2) was originally intended as a picture gallery, and oil paintings still hang on the walls. In 2009, it was converted to a "wireless Internet reading and study room" to provide overflow capacity for internet users who cannot fit in the Main Reading Room.
The stacks within the Schwarzman Building are a main feature of the building. Housed beneath the Rose Main Reading Room are a series of stacks, which hold an estimated 2.5 million books. At the time of the branch's opening, the stacks could hold 2.7 million books on 63.3 miles (101.9 km) of shelves. There were another 500,000 or 800,000 books stored in various reading rooms. The central stacks, as they are called, have a capacity of 3.5 million books across 88 miles of bookshelves, spanning seven stories. As of 2015, the Main Branch hosts 300,000 books in various reading rooms, though there are none in the central stacks themselves, due to the deteriorated condition of the stacks. There were proposals to demolish the central stacks to make room for the Mid-Manhattan Branch as part of the unrealized Central Library Plan in the early 2010s. As of 2019, the library's trustees have still not determined how to use the abandoned stacks in the main building.
Another 84 miles of stacks under Bryant Park was added in an expansion between 1987 and 1991. The Bryant Park stacks comprise two levels of climate-controlled storage areas. The stacks under Bryant Park contain 1.2 million books on what is called "Level 1", which was completed in the 1991 expansion. A second level of stacks below it, "Level 2", had not been finished when the 1991 expansion was opened. Another 2.5 million books were being moved from the NYPL's ReCAP warehouse in New Jersey to Level 2 as of 2015, and when that was finished, the number of books in the Main Branch's stacks would rise to four million. The Level 2 stacks are called the "Milstein Stacks", after a major donor, and opened in January 2017. As of 2017, the stacks also contain about 400,000 circulating volumes that are usually housed in the Mid-Manhattan Branch, which was closed for renovations until 2020.
Books are delivered from the Bryant Park stacks to the reading rooms on the first through third floors using the "book train". The $2.6 million book delivery system was installed in 2016. It contains a conveyor belt and 24 small red carts emblazoned with the library's lion logo, which each carry up to 30 pounds (14 kg) of books between the stacks and the reading rooms. Each cart moves 75 feet (23 m) per minute and use gears to climb steep or vertical grades. Prior to the installation of the "book train", a Ferris wheel-style conveyor system was installed in the 1990s; it took ten minutes to retrieve a book using the old system, The "Ferris wheel" system, which was complemented by a dumbwaiter, itself replaced a 1920s-era book-delivery system and a 1960s-era dumbwaiter. The new book-delivery system was described as being twice as fast as the old system.
Leading up to the Main Branch, on 41st Street between Park and Fifth Avenues, is a series of plaques known as Library Way. Library Way comprises a series of illustrated bronze sidewalk plaques featuring quotes from famous authors, poets, and other notables. It features 48 unique plaques in all, but each plaque is duplicated along the north and the south sides of 41st Street, thus totaling 96 plaques. According to The Wall Street Journal, a panel composed of "the Grand Central Partnership, which manages the Grand Central Business Improvement District; and the New Yorker magazine" chose the quotes in the 1990s, while Gregg LeFevre designed the plaques. Each plaque measures 2.5 feet (0.76 m) wide and 1.5 feet (0.46 m) long; originally, there were 98 such plaques. The first three, by Francis Bacon, Emily Dickinson, and Virginia Woolf, were installed in front of 18 East 41st Street in 2002.
Brochures are available at the Friends of the Library counter in the Main Branch's Astor Hall, on the first floor. Granite plaques of similar style can also be seen on the sidewalks of Broadway in Manhattan's Financial District, placed in honor of ticker tape parades held there in the past, as well as on Broadway in the Garment District, where plaques commemorate fashion designers.
The Main Branch was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1965 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1966. The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the exterior as a landmark in 1967. The Landmarks Preservation Commission subsequently designated Astor Hall, the first-to-third-floor stairs, and McGraw Rotunda as landmarks in 1974. The Rose Main Reading Room and Public Catalog Room were separately made New York City designated landmarks in 2017, after a four-year effort.
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