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Preserving a Masterpiece
A new exhibit explores the construction and preservation of the New York Public Library main branch building
The New York Public Library (NYPL) has opened a new exhibition, Preserving A Masterpiece: From Soaring Ceilings to Subterranean Storage, that documents the history of the 105-year-old Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. Carrying significant historical pedigree, the building currently has three rooms that have been granted NYCLandmark protection: Astor Hall, the main stairway and the McGraw Rotunda. Running through September 18, the exhibition will focus on the ongoing restoration of the Rose Main Reading Room.
Preserving A Masterpiece will be located on the third floor of the Schwarzman Building and boast more than 75 photos, most of which have never been revealed in public. The images—which go all the way back to 1902—will shed light on the building's past as well as current preservation efforts. The structure makes use 530,00 cubic feet of marble and the massive scale of its structure is on full display in early images.
Behind the scenes photography will explore the two-year restoration of the ceilings in the Bill Blass Public Catalog Room and Rose Main Reading Room, as well as the 50 foot scaffolding that was used to carry out the work. Further images will show the construction of a second level of collection storage underneath Bryant Park and the new 55,700-square-foot level of the Milstein Research Stacks, which is due to bring the library's capacity to approximately 4.3 million volumes.
In addition to this, two ornate plaster rosettes from the Rose Main Reading Room ceiling will be on display. Interestingly, when one was pulled down during an inspection to test the ceiling's strength, more than 430 pounds of weight was required, proving that the ceiling has maintained its structural strength during its 100-year lifetime.
“The Library is proud to be a dedicated, great steward of all of its buildings, including and especially the iconic and historic 42nd Street Library and its beloved reading rooms,” said NYPL President Tony Marx. “Looking at photographs of this building from its beginnings to its current state is a powerful reminder of what makes it so special, so extraordinary, and so important.”
In bold preservation move, the New York Public Library commissions replica of mural in its Catalogue Room
Cynthia Phifer Kracauer, AIA, is the Managing Director of the Center for Architecture and the festival director for Archtober: Architecture and Design Month NYC. She was previously a partner at Butler Rogers Baskett, and from 1989-2005 at Swanke Hayden Connell. After graduating from Princeton (AB 1975, M.Arch 1979) she worked for Philip Johnson, held faculty appointments at the University of Virginia, NJIT, and her alma mater. firstname.lastname@example.org
It sounds too good to be true. But it goes to show that criticism can actually change things! Ada Louise Huxtable writing in the Wall Street Journal inspired us all—and particularly prompted the formation of the Huxtable Initiative (a group of architectural journalists, critics and historians) to protest the insertion of the Foster scheme in the grand Carrere and Hastings structure. Then architecture critic Michael Kimmelman put the problem on the front burner by writing about the weaknesses of the library's plans in the New York Times. Charles Warren, the architect, advanced the discussion by revealing the engineering distinctiveness of the stacks that were about to be destroyed. And then of course, there was The Committee to Save the New York Public Library, which just never gave up. When you don't have big money, you do need a lot of perseverance and people.
Facing two new lawsuits and vociferous protests from numerous scholars and critics, the New York Public Library (NYPL) has decided to take a step back and re-evaluate its proposed renovation plans for the iconic 5th Avenue branch.
In December, Foster + Partners unveiled renderings of the new circulating library to be housed in the Stephen A. Schwarzman building with an ambiguous price tag of $300 million. This costly overhaul of the historic Beaux-Arts branch called for the removal of seven tiers of stacks beneath the Rose Main Reading Room to make way for a new circulating library. NYPL’s controversial “Central Library Plan” would consolidate the Mid-Manhattan and Innovative Science, Industry, and Business libraries within the main branch on 42nd Street and transfer roughly three million books from its research collection to storage space beneath Bryant Park and to off-site locations in New Jersey.
“We also believe the removal of the stacks and relocation of books will create a situation that is really negative for people trying to use the library in a research capacity,” said Simeon Bankoff, executive director of Historic Districts Council and member of the Committee to Save the New York Public Library. “It is really a crippling blow to the purpose of the building.”
The funding for this ambitious undertaking would come from a mix of public and private sources. So far the library has secured $150 million from the city, and hopes the sale of the Mid-Manhattan Library and Science Library will generate an additional $200 million.
“We don’t trust the numbers that the library is throwing around. Where is the oversight and where is the accountability?” said Bankoff.
At a hearing on June 27, State Assemblyman Micah Z. Kellner, chair of the Assembly Committee on Libraries and Education Technology, listened to roughly 50 people voice their concerns about the merger of the three branches. Acknowledging the public’s misgivings about the hefty and somewhat vague cost of the renovation, NYPL president Tony Marx said that the library would initiate and provide independent cost reviews. The NYPL has committed to exploring several options, including cost estimates for renovating the stacks and Mid-Manhattan Library, and a third review of the larger renovation project to be updated once again by Foster + Partners.
“All projects, especially projects this large and complex, go through an iterative process,” said NYPL official Ken Weine. “Come fall we’ll have a new design from Foster + Partners.”
When the library filed for building permits in early June prior to the completion of the public review process, it prompted several scholars and preservationists to take legal action with the help of the law firm Advocates for Justice. The aim of the lawsuit against the NYPL is to avert plans to permanently alter the historic building, which the plaintiffs contend will betray the mission of the institution and play to the interests of private developers.
In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs make the case that the NYPL has breached its promise to keep public books at the library, violated New Yorkers’ constitutional right to have access to information, and failed to take proper measures to assess environmental impact. They also argue that the library trustees have breached their fiduciary duties by not considering other options to ease financial concerns in addition to abandoning the charter to keep the books on site.
A second lawsuit was filed on July 10 by another group of critics and preservationists, including authors Edmund Morris and Annalyn Swan along with a library advocacy group, Citizens Defending Libraries. These plaintiffs have filed an injunction to halt construction and removal of the stacks. This lawsuit focuses on a 1978 Agreement between the Library, City, and New York State that, according to the plaintiffs, prohibits any “structural alteration of the Central Branch” without approval from the state first.