Architecture · Preservation

New York Public Library to Commit Hara-Kiri on Fifth Avenue

That’s right; the disembowelment is scheduled to begin this summer.

"We cannot help but be grateful that the Library's construction occurred in the decades that produced our finest architecture, at a time when the nation led the world in the classical tradition. More, that there were giants. . .to plan and design the building and craftsmen. . .to bring their age-old skills to its adornment. Let us, their fortunate heirs. rejoice in their triumph." Henry Hope Reed, The New York Public Library.
“We cannot help but be grateful that the Library’s construction occurred in the decades that produced our finest architecture, at a time when the nation led the world in the classical tradition. More, that there were giants. . .to plan and design the building and craftsmen. . .to bring their age-old skills to its adornment. Let us, their fortunate heirs. rejoice in their triumph.” Henry Hope Reed, The New York Public Library.

The problem:

Mid Manhattan Library
Mid Manhattan Library

1.The Mid-Manhattan circulating library located at 43rd and Fifth Avenue, across the Street from the research library, is dirty, ugly, and poorly designed. It struggles to accommodate its 4000 daily visitors. You really have to want to take a book home to patronize this place.

2.The millions of books stored in the seven stories of stacks in the research library need to be housed in a state-of-the-art  climate controlled environment to slow down deterioration. The stacks, which are not open and not visible to the public, are located under the glorious Rose reading room and indeed physically support it.

Seven stories of stacks are located under the Rose Reading Room.
Seven stories of stacks are located under the Rose Reading Room.

The proposed solution:

Remove the books that are currently housed in the research library—all of them—from the building. Some of them can be shelved in the space under adjoining Bryant Park, a space which is already used to house some of the collection and will be expanded thanks to an $8 million dollar grant from Abby and Howard Milstein.  (The rest  of the books  will  go to a storage facility in New Jersey from which patrons can request them—and wait 24 hours (probably more)  for them to be delivered. Some books are already stored in the NJ location.

Then the plan is to rip out the stacks entirely, using the space thus liberated for a brand new modern circulating library with lots of space for the sorts of cool activities that one expects from a “community library.” Where is the money coming from? The plan is to sell the building housing the Mid-Manhattan Library and also the SIBL library at 34th Street. The Donnell branch library has already been sold. $150 million will come from the City.

Here is what a portion of the new structure will look like:

View of a portion of the  proposed circulating library to be located within the current Beaux Arts building.

View of a portion of the proposed circulating library to be located within the current Beaux Arts building, overlooking Bryant Park.

Isn’t it seductive? No doubt  thousands of people will be attracted  to the sunlit space.  It occurs to me that it will be a wonderful place to hang out in midtown. Cool in summer, warm in winter. Comfy chairs where you can relax and check your email and update your Facebook (will Wi-Fi be available in the comfy chair area? Has anybody asked?) grab a bite (they have not said so, but I have no doubt there will be food somewhere), make use of the clean streamlined bathrooms, maybe even browse among the books and magazines, and it’s FREE!

And what of the research library? Well, it will still be there; the third floor will remain untouched. But the repurposing of the building by definition will mean the focus will shift away from the serious scholarly function of the library.  And I regret it.

I’m aware that this kind of criticism is in turn criticized as elitist. But there is nothing elitist about it. Anybody can use the research library and ask for assistance from the librarians stationed in the catalogue room—anybody. There are no fees, no scrutiny of your intended purpose of the sources. It is a wonderful example of a perfectly democratic institution. It is one of the world’s great research libraries. This is the point. It is a RESEARCH library.

And the building itself is the crown jewel of classical architecture in New York City. It is breath-takingly beautiful throughout. But it’s significant that the original architects, Carrere and Hastings, focused the plans for their building on the delivery of books to the reader, in other words, on the stacks.

The British architect chosen to do the renovation, Norman Foster, is known for incorporating modern features into historic structures. He claims to be sensitive to the need to respect the integrity of the building. But in my opinion, the plan is ipso facto insensitive and disrespectful; its execution cannot possibly be otherwise.

Certainly,  those who are not interested in the particular sources the research library offers do need a modern, comfortable, “community-based” library. And there is no reason they should not have it. In the December 4 edition of  The Wall Street Journal, the architect critic, Ada Louise Huxtable, lays out her objections to the current proposal and suggests an alternative.  The community, she suggests, is not best served by a “hollowed-out hybrid of new and old.” Rather why not modernize Mid-Manhattan with a “spectacular” renovation and retrofit the stacks of the research library  with state of the art climate control? If more money is needed, launch a public fund raising campaign. Appeal to millionaires. Makes sense to me. The Milsteins are not the only wealthy people in New York.

Stewards of historic buildings are mindful of a commandment which enjoins them to do nothing that cannot be reversed. This proposal, if it goes forward, will certainly be irreversible. My belief is that no matter how attractive the plan seems now, in 25 years, perhaps sooner, New Yorkers will simply shake their heads in sorrowful regret.

2 thoughts on “New York Public Library to Commit Hara-Kiri on Fifth Avenue

  1. Mary, I am so glad you wrote about it and formulated my thoughts in a clear and strong way: I was just too angry to be clear and polite about this…
    What is also hidden in their “let’s transform the NYPL of 42nd street into a Barnes & Noble meets Starbucks Coffee” plan is the ever shrinking number of branches in the midtown area.
    I worked midtown for years and cried when they closed the Donnell Library… There was no place for me to go during a short hour lunch to pick up reserved books, browse the open stacks (what wonderful discoveries one can do with open stacks), or return books. With most library branches closing at 5 or 6PM a branch near your office is of immense value… Without the branches like Donnell or the midtown Library, where are the workers going to drop their books?
    Not in the new library: it looks as welcoming as an airport lounge!
    This is just a new stop on the way of the bookless library… the same one that is selling and discarding a number of books, making decisions and choices that will be probably as regrettable as their architectural choice today!
    THANKS MARY!

    Like

    1. You bring up a very good point. Not much has been made of the closing of Donnell. The truth is that “the community” (or more accurately in a City as large as NY, “communities”) are best served by branches near their office or home. But these neighborhood libraries are sadly neglected. Priorities are really out of whack, it seems to me.

      Like

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