PODCAST: New York Public Library

The New York Public Library may be one of the most revered libraries in America, but it took a farflung combination of bookworms, millionaires and do-gooders to make it into the institution it is today. Also: find out why the architectural style of the Beaux Arts sometimes reminds us of an old French prostitute.

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Before the lions of the New York Public Library — now less imposingly called the Humanities and Social Sciences Library — parked themselves at 40th and 6th Ave, the Croton Reservoir stood imposingly there, holding the city’s water supply. As you can tell from this picture, it looked a bit like an Egyptian pyramid, or perhaps a alien spaceship.

This was a distribution reservoir, which received water from a larger ‘receiving reservoir’ in what is now Central Park, but what was then on the outskirts of town.

Meanwhile, the space now considered Bryant Park was, in the 1850s, the location of the New York Crystal Palace, home of America’s technological and engineering marvels. Here’s a look at the Crystal Palace in all its glory:

And a dramatic illustration of its final moments, felled in a quick burning fire.

The construction of the library took nine years — sixteen if you consider the time from original design to dedication. The most ambitious marble building of its time, it was covered in Vermont marble so carefully chosen that two-thirds of the shipped stone was rejected for not being refined enough. The marble is at a thickness of almost a foot all around. The net effect even now gives the structure an immovability that makes the modern skyscrapers around it seem light and temporary.

On the frontispiece above the entrance to the library is a tribute to its three creators — millionaire John Jacob Astor, collector James Lenox and former governor Samuel Tilden:

However, the area of 41st street that runs between 5th and 6th Avenue is now called ‘John Bigelow Plaza’, after the man who brought the Astor and Lenox collections together with the Tilden Trust.

James Lenox has originally kept his collection in his own library on 5th and 70th street. This scratch illustration displays Lenox’s ‘indestructible’ limestone library, which housed most of the items held at the Public Library today, including Lenox’s personal copy of the Gutenberg Bible.

Meanwhile, the rest of the collection came from the Astor Library, constructed with money bequeathed by the millionaire. Thankfully the building remains pretty much intact, thanks to its present occupants, the Public Theatre, whose decades of success on Broadway, off-Broadway, dance, performance art and especially Shakespeare in the Park would have confused but satisfied the building’s original benefactor.

Some pictures from inside the New York Public Library building illustrate some of its more Beaux-Art-ish features. The broad vaulted arches:

And ornate muralled ceilings in the McGraw Rotunda. The effect is a bit like the Vatican apartments mixed with an old bank:

Its all dwarfed, however by the massive Rose Reading Room, whose basic organization came not from the architects but from the library’s first director, Dr. John Shaw Billings, from a sketch he made on a postcard!

And finally, a beautiful picture I found on a World War I website, showing the fairly new library in all its glory, as New York’s 369th Regiment passes by.

Thanks to the New York Public Library official website for providing us with some of our trivia. And there’s lots more there to intrugue you. Click here for visiting hours and facts about some of the branch libraries.

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