Chambers Architects visits a New York Beaux Arts Masterpiece

 In Blog

Main Reading Room, the size of two city blocks, features a magnificent fresco, carved wood and marble, chandeliers, immense windows, and 52 ft. tall ceiling

Everyone who visits New York City soon discovers a favorite building–one that invites you in and heightens your appreciation for how architecture shapes experience. The city has a multitude of architecturally significant buildings in a wide range of styles. There is universal recognition of the Manhattan skyline, home to some of the tallest buildings in the world. The Chrysler Building (1930) and Empire State Building (1931) have distinctive ornamentation and are considered some of the finest examples of the Art Deco style. The character of New York’s large residential districts are defined by elegant brownstone row houses, townhouses, and tenements that were built during a period of rapid expansion from 1870 to 1930. In contrast, neighborhoods such as the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens, single-family homes are common in Tudor Revival and Victorian styles, as well as handsome old warehouses being transformed into chic lofts. And a distinctive feature on many of the city’s buildings is the wooden roof-mounted water tanks. Texas residential architect, Steve Chambers, visited New York City and found a new favorite.

“Libraries are not about books,” someone says in the documentary Ex Libris below, “libraries are about people.” A visit to the NYPL reveals it to be more than just a warehouse of unopened book covers, or an extensive network of cold buildings and quiet rooms. The NYPL is a tree with 92 branches, and deep roots that bind New York City together. This vast system and libraries across the U.S. have become living organisms that open a multitude of worlds to people and allow discovery of their purpose at a point in history.

Many visitors to New York don’t know much about the building, other than it was a colorful locale in films and television–Ghostbusters, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Seinfeld–and guarded by two enormous lions, named Patience and Fortitude. The NYPL mission is a soaring Utopian vision: to build an intellectual force and deep emotion within its citizens to question, build interests, seek and join together to listen to one another, and learn through a dialogue with it and others.

Last February, we visited two grand European Beaux Arts structures, the Musee d’Art et d’Histoire in Geneva and the Kunst Museum in Bern, which gave us a basis for comparison with the main NYPL. Yet, the museums in Switzerland, did not prepare us for the overwhelmingly exquisite character and scale of the New York edifice. All three buildings have the same grand entry with double staircases, but the NYPL was designed to support services for a far greater number of people. It impressed us as a grand palace of collected knowledge for all people. It’s intention is to inspire a love of books, welcome its visitors to remain within, and provide vast reserves for research. We expect art museums to elevate what’s inside by enveloping their works within ‘jewel boxes.’ With its craftsmanship and detail, the NYPL is an adoring homage to the humble book and the manner in which it elevates individuals and society as a whole.

Immense vases on Fifth Avenue steps (drawings in gallery below)

Grand staircase leading to reading rooms

Following an open competition among the city’s most prominent architects in the early 1900s, the relatively unknown firm of Carrère & Hastings was selected to design and construct a new library for New York City. This pinnacle of Beaux-Arts design was dedicated in 1911, the largest marble structure ever attempted in the United States. When it opened its doors, 50,000 ravenous visitors toured the building, surprised to find an intimate union between themselves and the immense edifice. Immediately, the New York Public Library became a vital part of the intellectual fabric of American life. Its earliest beneficiaries were the recent immigrants to New York, for whom the Library provided contact with the literature and history of their new country, as well as the heritage that these people brought with them.

The NYPL is renowned for its comprehensive historical collections, as well as a commitment to free access to all those who wish to use its resources. It houses some 15 million items, among them priceless medieval manuscripts, ancient Japanese scrolls, contemporary novels and poetry, as well as baseball cards, dime novels, comic books, the first Gutenberg Bible to come to the United States, and the original Winnie The Pooh stuffed bear which inspired the books. Its collections are vast, diverse, and not easily characterized. They range from priceless ancient rarities in the Rare Books and the Manuscripts and Archives divisions to current newspapers from all over the world. More than 1,200 languages and dialects, ancient and modern, are represented in the collections. The NYPL has lower galleries that function as exhibition space. On the day we visited, the art of thirty artists who illustrated Charles Dickens’ characters were on display, as well as a notebook Dickens kept regarding names and traits of potential characters.

In addition to collecting the rare as well as the ordinary, it has, since the very beginning, acquired materials often regarded as controversial or even offensive. For instance, during the height of McCarthyism in the late 1940s, it actively acquired materials from the Left and the Right, despite the objections of government and citizens’ patriotic groups.

Over the years the library has been periodically restored. But in 2008 to prepare for the 100th birthday of the building, the immense main reading room, the size of two city blocks, was given a greatly needed rehabilitation of its marble, wood, gilding, and ceiling fresco. This spectacular restoration was unveiled in 2011. And in spite of the proliferation of information through technology, this century old grand dame remains as relevant today as it was when it opened by affording equal access to computers and its vast reserves at no cost to all who enter its doors.

We also noted and photographed the stunning contemporary addition to the building completed in 2004 Davis Brody Bond, LLP. The project, a new 42,500-square-foot, three-story structure, fills an existing open south courtyard of the Library and accommodates the library’s public education program as well as staff offices, an electronic teaching center, and auditorium. In the same manner that the Library keeps books relevant, the elegant modern addition winningly contrasts and flatters the building that came before it.

The New York Public Library was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1965.

Intersection of new addition and original open south courtyard. The addition is set back from original 1911 exterior facade so that it can closely examined from the new floors.

In the documentary, below, by Frederick Wiseman, this treasured US institution opens itself to the painstaking view of a fly-on-the-wall master auteur, who finds enlightenment, humor, compassion and soul within its walls.

In the gallery, below, photos by Steve and Stephanie Chambers of Chambers Architects highlight the quality of original craftsmanship, original building details, an early drawing, the seamless integration of the new addition, and views to iconic architecture of the Manhattan skyline that surround this Beaux Arts masterpiece.

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