A People's Library In Archway: Archway Library, 1980
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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.
Several sites were considered, including those of the Astor and Lenox Libraries. In March 1896, 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. The library's trustees convinced mayor William L. Strong to give them the reservoir site, after they gave him studies showing that the size of New York City's library collection lagged behind those of many other cities. 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, though controversial for its time, 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. The Society of Beaux-Arts Architects hosted an architectural design competition for the library, with two rounds. The rules of the competition's first round were never published, but they were used as the basis for later design competitions. Entrants submitted 88 designs, of which 12 were selected for a semi-finalist round and six went on to a finalist round. About a third of the designs, 29 in total, followed the same design principles outlined in Billings's original sketch. Each of the semifinalist designs were required to include specific architectural features, including limestone walls; a central delivery desk; reading rooms with large windows; and stacks illuminated by sunlight. The six finalists were selected by a jury composed of library trustees and architects. The jury relaxed the requirement that the proposals adhere to a specific floor plan after McKim, Mead & White, which had received the most votes from the jury, nearly withdrew from the competition. All of the finalist designs were in the Beaux-Arts style.
Ultimately, in November 1897, the relatively unknown firm of Carrère and Hastings was selected to design and construct the new library. The jury named the firm of Howard & Cauldwell and McKim, Mead, & White as runners-up. Carrère and Hastings created a model for the future library building, which was exhibited at New York City Hall in 1900. Whether John Mervin Carrère 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, Carrère 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. During the design process, Hastings had wanted to shift the library building closer to Sixth Avenue, and he also proposed sinking 42nd Street to create a forecourt for the library, but both plans were rejected. The New York City Board of Estimate approved Carrère and Hastings's plans for the library in December 1897.
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 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.
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 also 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, decorated with such details as satyr masks and acanthus leaves. 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 current library building was originally meant to be the center section of a larger library,with the two additional wings to be built in phases. The construction of the wings was continuallyput off due to funding limitations. Eventually alternative expansion plans were considered forWillis Library, but the funding was never present to move forward.
When the library was originally built, a large white sculpture was created by artist Michael Cunningham,to hang from the ceiling on the second floor. The large abstract sculpture was originally supposed toslowly rotate one time per hour. After a few years, the motors used to rotate the sculpture no longerfunctioned properly, in 1980 the sculpture cracked due to humidity fluctuations, and in 1984 the sculpturewas removed for safety. 2b1af7f3a8