New York’s Beaux-Arts masterpiece

Elisabetta Gasparoni | 12 June 2006

The New York Public Library – majestic columns and arches, grand marble staircases, high, elaborately decorated ceilings – stands magnificent and inviting at the intersection of 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue. Begun in 1899 and completed in 1911 it is a continuing monument to knowledge and research.

The Beaux-Arts style employed by architects John Merven Carrere and Thomas Hastings underscores the notion of collaboration among architects, sculptors and painters given its eclectic mix of Greek and Roman classical models with Italian Renaissance and 17th century French motifs. Further evidence of the tremendous cooperation to create this space is the beautiful hand carving throughout the 530,000 cubit feet of Vermont white marble, which sheathes the interior and exterior of the building. The hand carvings stand as a memorial to the many French, German and Italian immigrant craftsmen.

The Library’s facade tells you what the building is about: above the Corinthian columns of the front portico are six colossal figures representing some of the most important disciplines, History, Drama, Poetry, Religion, Romance and Philosophy. The two fountains to either side of the portico are also symbolic. The one on the right is Truth as a man seated on a sphinx; the form associated with wisdom. The fountain on the left is the figure of Beauty sitting on the winged horse Pegasus symbolizing inspiration and elevation above worldly concerns. Over her head a passage from American poet John Greenleaf Whittier reads:” Beauty old yet ever new/ eternal voice and inward word”. At the south and north ends of the building we can see The Arts represented by a man with a hammer and chisel and a woman with two books. The north side is dedicated to History: a man rests his elbow on a book in which a female figure inscribes the word “Life”.

I entered the building into the Astor Hall, a magnificent interior where every available surface is covered by white marble. Still mesmerized by the efforts, enthusiasm and skill of so many people who worked together to produce this amazing place where we can now go to enrich ourselves, a sweet 50-something woman asks: “Are you here for the tour?” I didn’t know that they did tours… but I am delighted to take the opportunity.

And the feast began! The tour is free (as is the entrance, the access to the reading rooms and the reading matter, just as a good library should be). “This is the warehouse of the human race. Everything on any given subject is here in this research library!” And from this solemn start, we begin our exploration of this temple of knowledge.

She takes us through lengthy hallways, grand staircases, wonderful forecourts, magnificent vaults, decorated cast bronze doors and intricately carved ceilings. She tells us that the Library was designed by Dr. John Shaw Billings, one of the most brilliant librarians of the end of the 19th century. Billings together with many other New Yorkers foresaw that if New York was to become one of the world’s great centers of urban culture, it had to have a great library! His plan, she continues, envisioned an enormous reading room atop seven floors of bookstacks and the most rapid delivery system in the world to get the Library’s resources as quickly as possible into the hands of those who requested them.

She talks proudly of the opening day, on May 24th 1911, when more than one million books were set in place and between 30,000 and 50,000 visitors streamed through the building. She is so excited to give us details that every word exudes her love for this place! Nowadays, the library is visited (and used) by more than 10 million people every year. The impressive collections continue to expand at the rate of approximately 10,000 items per week in dozens of languages, all of which are housed in different language divisions. Through its Research and Branch Libraries it provides free access to information with collections totaling 10.4 million items!

As my tour continues, the guide reiterates the function of the library: “Everybody can come and ask for any research book that has been published and it will be delivered to you in 20 minutes. None of the books in the building can be borrowed but all must be used onsite. This library provides access to information on a scale unmatched by any other institution in the world. Its research collections contributed to innovations such as the splitting of the atom!”

She takes us into the DeWitt Wallace Periodical Room where you can ask for a magazine or journal and sit in the elegant room surrounded by murals based on photographs of thirteen magazine and newspaper headquarters buildings.

She briefly walks us trough the Exhibition Spaces, then the various special collections and exhibition rooms: our eyes are now scanning the black and white photographs taken by The Photo League, a cooperative of amateur and professional photographers founded in 1936 who believed in the power of photography to change social conditions. Ante-rooms house the original manuscripts of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”; the diaries of Virginia Woolf; a manuscript notebook of 57 early poems by P.B. Shelly. She shows us the first Gutenberg Bible to come to the New World and a copy of the first printed book in America, the so-called Bay Psalm Book. We walk now into our ultimate destination the Bill Blass Public Catalog Room and beyond it we enter the wonderful Rose Main Reading Room through the majestic carved wooden entrance above which are inscribed John Milton’s words: “A good Booke is the pretious life-blood of a master-spirit, embalm’d and tresur’d up on purpose to a life beyond life”. It provides seating for 636 readers at carved desks under beautiful chandeliers and wonderful ceiling. She tells us the Library’s stack space was expanded in 1992 and the shelf capacity of the building now is 7 million volumes.

One hour and half has passed by and the tour is now over. We applaud her and disperse: many people are sitting reading, some are waiting a short while for their books to come, others are walking to their reading rooms. Everywhere there is a reverential atmosphere, for this is after all the place that guards all that mankind has achieved: that which keeps us immortal even if we are transient. It is the place that elevates our lives: we may perish, but our experience and knowledge will be guarded here for ever!


Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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