Main Reading and Catalogue Rooms

The NYPL’s two grandest rooms are now New York City landmarks

East News Urbanism
The NYPL's two grandest rooms are now New York City landmarks. Seen here: The Rose Main Reading Room. (Jiahui Huang/Flickr)
The NYPL's two grandest rooms are now New York City landmarks. Seen here: The Rose Main Reading Room. (Jiahui Huang/Flickr)

Today the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) added two stunning rooms in the main branch library to its roster of interior landmarks.

The New York Public Library’s (NYPL) main branch in Midtown Manhattan is a definitive New York building. The structure, built on the site of a former reservoir, commands a block-wide slice of 42nd Street between 5th and 6th avenues. Architects Carrère & Hastings spared no detail, especially on the inside, where a happy Beaux Arts explosion of arched windows, rosettes, ceiling murals, skylights, and brass chandeliers have sheltered writers and learners since 1911. It’s officially known as the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, and its grand interior is mostly unprotected.

One of the best-known rooms, the Rose Main Reading Room, was designated today, as well as the Bill Blass Catalogue Room. These spaces will join the main entrance and primary public spaces that lead up to the main rooms as interior landmarks. (The building’s exterior was protected 50 years ago.)

The designation comes in the middle of a renovations spell at the library. With architects at the Dutch firm Mechanoo, the NYPL has just started work on the Mid-Manhattan Library, an adjacent branch, while renovations on the Schwarzman Building by the same architect have yet to be announced. The Schwarzman Building’s main room and catalogue room, both on the third floor, re-opened to the public last year after extensive revamps that brought a dead-on replica of the original sky mural to the catalogue room.

The LPC convened in July to discuss those two rooms, but held off on a vote at that meeting. Although seven parties spoke in support of the designation last time, there was no public testimony at today’s meeting.

In a unanimous vote, commissioners affirmed the importance of library’s signature rooms—and not just for the architecture. “The details, the ornament, the ceiling paintings, all of that is so remarkable,” said Commissioner Adi Shamir-Baron. In her estimation, the two blocks of interior space create a “rare condition” that makes the two rooms an “extraordinary and singular civic space and reminds us what civic space actually is, which is a place and ethic that honors and elevates the spirit of the individual and the collective.”

For one volunteer advocacy group, however, the designation doesn’t go deep enough. The Committee to Save the New York Public Library (Save NYPL) wants the commission to consider 11 other rooms—essentially the whole building—for landmarking, and has submitted a petition with 2,000 signatures to the LPC for consideration.

Save NYPL, the same group that campaigned against the library’s proposed Norman Foster renovation, cited how Carrère & Hastings knitted the rooms together via decorative motifs. In his testimony, Save NYPL President Charles Warren claimed that “[a] piecemeal approach to interior designation does not adequately respect this design and leaves some of New York’s most sublime manifestations of Beaux-Arts interiors unprotected.”

As precedent, he pointed out that the interiors of McKim Mead & White’s Boston Public Library are completely landmarked. 

In a phone call with The Architect’s Newspaper (AN), Warren noted the effort all stakeholders took to get to today’s vote, and he confirmed that Save NYPL will re-submit a Request for Evaluation to the LPC for the other rooms in the hopes they will be considered (calendared) and designated.

He praised today’s vote but explained his group’s decision on the grounds that only full landmarking can protect the building. “The library claims it is a great steward,” Warren said, “but they’ve carried out some changes that are questionable” like installing track lighting in the carved wood ceiling of the Gottesman Exhibition Hall, and removing the perimeter skylights in the Celeste Bartos Forum.

Though the monumental exterior is recognizable to most New Yorkers and beyond, the building’s all in the details. Save NYPL’s vice president, preservation activist Theodore Grunewald, asked the LPC to preserve the reading room’s pneumatic tubes, among other less-than-obvious—but still significant—features.

In a prepared statement, NYPL President Tony Marx evaluated the LPC’s decision. “The New York Public Library applauds today’s vote to officially designate the Rose Main Reading Room and Bill Blass Public Catalog Room as New York City interior landmarks. For over a century, we have been proud, dedicated stewards of these architectural and civic treasures, and will continue to preserve and protect them with the respect and care that they require and deserve. We thank the Landmarks Preservation Commission for partnering with us in our mission to ensure that these beautiful, unique rooms inspire visitors now and for generations to come.”

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