October 7, 2016
By Alexandra Schwartz
This past Wednesday morning, the reading room reopened to the public after two and a half years of repairs and restorations. It’s a pleasure to have it back. The room is one of the city’s great public spaces, a shared chamber devoted to private mental endeavors, and it’s looking good. The marble walls gleam. The ceiling fixtures, reinforced and polished, glisten. Light streams through the room’s freshly scrubbed casement windows and radiates from the bulbs of its eighteen tiered chandeliers, which hang suspended over the rows of work tables like upside-down wedding cakes. The library’s sounds are restored, too, comforting and familiar: the industrious typing and page-turning, the zippering open and shut of backpacks, the scuffing of solid wooden armchairs on floor tile. As the first murmuring visitors settled in the other day, guards strolling the aisles shushed them—preëmptively, it seemed, but understandably so. Two and a half years is a long time for a library guard to go without shushing.
If you were feeling prognostic, back in 2014, you might have considered the fallen rosette an ill omen of what could have been in store for the N.Y.P.L. if its controversial Central Library Plan were to come to pass. The C.L.P. called for the library’s Mid-Manhattan branch and its Science, Industry and Business Library to be sold and their books moved into circulation at the main building, many of whose own books would be transferred in bulk to a storage site somewhere in New Jersey. The city’s main research library, in other words, would no longer have exclusively been a research library at all, nor would its building, which was slated for a major overhaul by the architect Norman Foster, have looked like the one that generations of New Yorkers have known and loved. When the plan was finally scrapped, that June, after much criticism, its failure was almost universally declared a victory for the people. Now the library has renovated and expanded the stacks under Bryant Park which house its research volumes; when one is called up, it’s loaded onto a red “book train” that looks something like Mister Rogers’s trolley in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, for a trip to the Rose Reading Room that takes about half an hour.
When I first saw early renderings of the C.L.P.’s proposed atrium renovation, I thought it looked like a spaceship. Many architectural renderings look like spaceships, but this one really looked like a spaceship, a sleek, sketchy notion of the future that seemed bound to grow dated within five years. I’m no Prince Charles; I have nothing against Norman Foster or spaceship-style architecture, but surely there are enough sleek new buildings being constructed in this city to allow us to preserve and enjoy one whose early-twentieth-century atmosphere and patina of aspirational oldness have attracted and inspired millions of people to seek it out as a place to do the reading and writing and thinking they might otherwise struggle to accomplish at home or in a coffee shop. The Fifth Avenue main branch is a luxurious place, and not in the current New York sense of the term, when every new building constructed in the city, from the empty oligarch towers on Fifty-seventh Street’s Billionaire Row to four-story rentals in Crown Heights, come advertised as “luxury” properties. The word is greedy, used that way, a sales pitch based on the appeal of having something at home that your neighbors don’t. The Rose Reading Room is luxurious in the way that only certain shared spaces can be. Its grandeur attracts its visitors, and is in turn amplified by their presence: the true urban symbiosis.
Tony Marx, the library’s president and the man who presided over the indignant reception of the C.L.P. and its failure, made a similar point at the Rose Reading Room’s ribbon-cutting ceremony. Marx has a New Deal politician’s optimistic bounce; his speech was heavy on the word “democracy,” and on the crucial role that libraries, and the New York Public Library, play in sustaining ours. Amen to that. After he finished, the poet Elizabeth Alexander offered a benediction in the form of two poems: Wallace Stevens’s “The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm,” and “Branch Library,” by Edward Hirsch. Scissors were handed out, and the red ribbon snipped to applause.
In the hallways outside the Rose Reading Room, a temporary exhibit displays photos and artifacts relating to the recent restoration—the sacrificial rosette is there—as well as older images of the library’s history. There’s a picture of New Yorkers crowding the front steps to donate books to the troops during the First World War, and one of the beloved Library Lion statues being molded from clay at the Connecticut studio of the sculptor Edward Clark Potter. Others go further back, showing the library site when it was still the Croton Reservoir, the massive stone structure that housed the city’s drinking water when that part of Manhattan was more mid-country than midtown. That beautiful metaphor of a city’s insatiable thirst doesn’t get old. Come by the reading room. Take a seat, look up at the ceiling, and drink.
Source: The New Yorker