The idea of building a large reading room on New York City’s bustling 5th Avenue did not seem like a good idea to many people in late 19th century. Actually many people thought it was a crazy idea, with all the horse carriage traffic, and the street noise, it seemed unfathomable that anyone could concentrate on reading material without distraction. John Shaw Billings thought otherwise. In 1895 design and construction began on what was soon to be the largest marble building ever built in the United States at that time. Today, the New York Public Library at 42nd street and 5th Avenue stands as one of the most successfully designed and respected libraries in our nation.
The New York Public Library at 42nd Street is a Classical building, inspired by John Shaw Billings, who became the first director of the library. Billings decided to place the monumental Main Reading Room on the top floor of the building to maximize light and air. The Main Reading room sat directly above eight levels of book stack storage. The stacks of the books were actually incorporated into the structure of the building, and are not free standing. The Main Reading Room stands as one of the largest un-columned rooms in the country.
The design and construction of the NYPL at 42nd street took sixteen years to complete. Designed by renowned architects John Mervin Carrere and Thomas Hastings, the building used 530,000 cubic feet of marble in its design. This included exterior marble facing that is twelve inches thick. It’s 7.5 ton cornerstone was laid on November 10, 1902, holding a relic box that contains contracts between NYC and the library, photographs, newspapers, and letters from the Trustees and Mayor of the city. Carrere and Hastings were very selective of the marble that they selected for the project. Over sixty-five percent of the marble quarried that was intended for the library did not meet their standards. It was later put to use on other architectural applications. The marble used was said to be so hard that all of the employees were supplied with rubber-soled shoes.
Carerre and Hastings paid such attention to detail in their design, that they went as far as designing each and every table, chair, waste-basket, lamp, chandelier, and piece of hardware for the library. The New York Public Library cost $9,000,000 to build on top of a $20,000,000 lot. The building expands 390 feet long by 270 feet wide, and is four stories high. That equals out to be over 420,000 square feet.
Ever since the library opened in 1911, it has had its own unique system of supplying its renowned collection of books to the public. Instead of people going to the stacks and finding the books they want, the library created a system of doing it for them. The public goes up to the book request desk located in the main reading room and writes out a slip with the call number of the book they want. The slip then goes into a tube that is sucked down to the lower stack area where the books are located. The Zip Tube, as they call it at the NYPL, works as a vacuum delivering data all around the library. The library employees then go and find the needed book and ship it up to the main reading room by way of dumbwaiters. The employees at the Book Pick-up area then retrieve the book and deliver it to the person in need of it. Despite the technology available in modern day (fax machines, email, the telephone) the Zip Tube method is still used today.
Between 1920 and 1930 the NYPL’s Main Reading room became extremely popular. It was not uncommon for there to be one thousand people in the room at one time. John Shaw Billings certainly proved all the skeptics wrong when 8,939 books were requested in just one day!
Over the years the original space designated for reading diminished as the desire for technological functions like copy services, microforms, and card stack storage grew. Layers of dirt, water damage, and heavy usage left the Reading Room looking makeshift and tired. In addition, the Library faced an increasing demand for access to electronic information. The New York Public Library prided itself in being known for meeting the general public’s needs, and for its great access to the public. It became clear that in order to meet the demands of the new age, renovations were going to have to be done to the Main Reading Room.
Renovations of the Main Reading room began in 1998. Davis Brody Architects of Manhattan was chosen to design the intense restoration project. The concept of the design was to restore the room to its original 1911 Classical style, while incorporating modern technology into the room. The challenge of the design was to do so without sacrificing it’s historical charm. The original 22-foot-long library tables were modified to provide power and data at each reader station. This involved the design of custom electrical grommets and cover plates, which were fitted flush into the tabletops. The table pedestals and the floor slab were cored to provide for power and data conduits, which connect a new raceway below the tabletop to conduits and cable trays at the stack level below. Restoration of the walls and ceilings was complicated because of the size of the room (297 feet long by 78 feet wide by 55 feet high). A fifty-foot-high scaffold was constructed, occupying two-thirds of the room so it could provide access to the surfaces in need of restoration. The chandeliers could not be removed during the construction process and the scaffolding had to be brought into the room through the windows!
The ceiling murals had suffered serious damage over the years, making it difficult to decipher the original character of the images. A series of tests and mock-ups were used to determine the final design and colors for the replicated murals. The murals were painted on canvas and then applied to the ceiling in two sections. In addition to the aesthetic and technological features, the existing mechanical systems in the room were modified to provide quieter and more even distribution of air throughout the space. This was done in a quest to improve the comfort level of the reading room. Lighting design was improved by replacing the original lamps with more efficient ones. The new fixtures utilized the original style of Carrere and Hastings while improving the energy efficiency level.
A new book delivery system was integrated into the existing stack structure to provide faster and more reliable delivery of books to the readers. New service desks and enclosures were designed to match Carrère and Hastings designs, which were constructed by craftsmen in the same manner as the original work. The existing window glass was replaced by laminated glass with a low-E coating to reduce the harmful UV radiation and lower the solar-induced heating in the 23,000 square foot space. The Main Reading Room was renamed as The Rose Main Reading Room in recognition of Library Trustee Sandra Priest Rose and Frederick Phineas Rose who funded the year and a half of renovations.
After visiting the New York Public Library at 42nd Street we have confirmed that Davis Brody architects were successful in their design. The closed stack system works really well, because all books stay in tidy order and appear very well organized. There is not much need of public circulation, except for up and down the isles of reading tables, copy machines, computer areas, and to the book request/return counter. This allows for more of the 23,000 square feet to be used valuably by the public. The layout of the reading room in reference to the central request/return room, seems very well thought out. There is a North and a South Wing of the room, divided by the desk area. Each wing has its own information desk and an abundance of tables (either equipped with computers or for reading).
While visiting we were able to interview people of different perspectives on their opinion of the library’s design. We heard nothing but positive feedback. One of the librarians mentioned that he was very happy using the Zip Tube system, and that even though modern technology could be used in its place; he is glad that it is not. Another librarian said that the reading room’s tranquil mood creates a very calm environment. She said that the richness of the materials and the historical charm makes people respect the room, and there are never acts of vandalism or disrespectful behavior. The women at the main information desk said that there are a lot of spaces in the library that are not easily accessed by the public. They are reserved rooms for people who would like to study international cultures. They are available upon request but you can not just walk into them. She said that this system works well because it makes immigrants feel more comfortable learning in a semi-private space. Another person that we interviewed was a library aid. She told us that the library’s circulation runs very smoothly and that the finishes create a warm and inviting atmosphere that makes people want to spend a lot of time inside the library. She said that the Zip Tube system is unique in its design and that a lot of studies have been done and it has proven to be the most effective way to keep the stacks organized. She said it also keeps the public satisfied. Another one of the librarians we asked told us that 75% of the people that come to the Rose Reading Room end up using some form of the technological services available.
From our personal experiences at libraries, we can say that the New York Public Library at 42ndstreet’s design makes visiting the library very time efficient, simple, and convenient. When you walk in you can go right up the main stairs and into the Rose Reading Room. From that one room you are able to request a book, read a book, search the Internet, participate in audiovisual activities, copy papers, request information, and return a book. You can do this without any unnecessary searching or frustration. It is all done there for you in one central room. With a fifty-five foot ceiling that has a cloud motif painted in the center of it, and nearly 25 foot tall windows surrounding the room, the atmosphere is very light and airy. The richness of the materials makes you feel as though you are in a very classy space. Although the size and the intense detail of the interior can be somewhat intimidating, the warm and relaxing atmosphere tones the intimidation down and makes you feel comfortable. One person told us that the Rose Reading Room makes her feel like she is inside a European Castle. One thing was for sure, everyone we saw was definitely very respectful to the architecture, the resources, the employees, and to the public.
Its no secret that John Shaw Billings was very clever with his idea of the central reading room located on 5th avenue. People thought he was crazy, but with the help of Carerre and Hastings his dream was delivered with great success. The use of the marble created a great sound barrier to all of the street noise. The articulate detail, richness of the finishes, the technological advances, and the success of historical renovations of the Rose Reading Room leave no room to question why the New York Public Library at 42nd street is so highly respected.
www.Davisbrody.com. Davis Brody Architects. January 2006.
Bosser, Jacques. The Most Beautiful Libraries, 2003. pages 228-237.
www.nylp.org. New York Public Library. January 2006.
Other References include: conversations with the Davis Brody Architect team, and NYPL librarians and volunteers.