Support Voiced for Designation of Library’s Main Reading Room

Image credit: LPC

Main reading room and catalog room of New York Public Library’s main branch lauded for both architecture and social significance. On July 18, 2017, Landmarks held a public hearing on the potential designation of the Main Reading Room and Catalog Room of the main branch of the New York Public Library as an interior landmark.  The Carrere & Hasting designed library, whose exterior is designated an individual City landmark, stands at 476 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. The building’s main lobby, north and south staircase, and third floor central hall were also designated an interior landmark in 1974. Landmarks voted to add the reading and catalog rooms to its calendar at its meeting on June 6, 2017.

Like the rest of the Library, the rooms were designed by the firm of Carrere & Hastings in a Beaux Arts style, as part of a general plan envisioned by the Library’s first Director, John Shaw Billings. The rooms are symmetrically arranged on the third floor between two light courts, and all possess 52-foot ceilings, carved woodwork, plaster ornamentation, electric chandeliers, and large arched windows. The reading room spans a total length of 297 feet, and is 87 feet wide.

Matt Postal of Landmark’s Research Department said designation would complete the “ceremonial route” that includes the previously landmarked interiors.

Risa Honig, the Library’s Vice President for Capital Planning and Construction, said the institution supported the designation, made possible by over a century of “proud, careful and dedicated” stewardship by the Library and its staff. Honig stated that that designation would “rightly complete a sequence of landmarked spaces,” along with lobby stairs and hall. She said of the rooms that they were “distinguished by the grandeur of their scale and sweepingly orchestrated design,” whose lavish detail was “dignified by their public purpose.” Honig also discussed recent renovation work, completed in 2016, that saw the cleaning and reinforcement of plaster, refinishing of wood, and restoration of the murals and chandeliers.

Image credit: LPC

The New York Landmarks Conservancy’s Andrea Goldwyn said the rooms are “so well-known and so well-regarded” that it would be surprising for most New Yorkers to learn that they were not yet landmarked. Goldwyn said the extraordinary design and craftsmanship of rooms that “sanctify research and the pursuit of knowledge” merited prompt protection. A representative of the Municipal Art Society noted that Carrere and Hastings deigned both the exterior and every detail of the interior with a “completeness of vision” elevating the Library to a work of art. He urged Landmarks to swiftly move to protect the spaces, which “endure as a civic beacon of the City’s democratic dissemination of knowledge.” Christabel Gough, speaking the Society for the Architecture of the City, stated that the spaces under discussion were “worthy not only for their noble decoration” but for their functional and magnificent design for the free distribution books in a fusion of “luxury and democracy.”

Representatives of the Committee to Save the NYPL urged Landmarks to broaden the designation to include eleven other eligible rooms and the remnants of a pneumatic tube system. Committee President Charles Warren cautioned that the unsympathetic alterations had been made in the past, and the eligible spaces “need all the protection our laws can provide.’”

Commissioner Adi Shamir-Baron said the protection of the rooms was the most important case that she had been involved in in her tenure as commissioner, and that it was “an honor” to participate in the process of their designation. She asked that the vote on designation on the spaces “dedicated to free secular thinking and quiet work” be held as soon as possible.

Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan agreed that the rooms speak to the Library’s “civic engagement,” and said a vote on designation would take place in “several weeks.”

LPC: New York Public Library Interiors, Main Reading Room and Catalog Room, 476 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan (LP-2592) (July 18, 2017).

By: Jesse Denno (Jesse is a full-time staff writer at the Center for NYC Law).

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