The main building of the New York Public Library is one of the most magnificent architectural landmarks in Manhattan. It was built in the early twentieth century to house the city’s newly created public library.
The palatial-looking library is situated in Manhattan’s midtown section, on ritzy Fifth Avenue between 40th and 42nd Street.
Founding of the Library
The New York Public Library was established in 1895 when the holdings of the Astor Library, the Lenox Library and the Tilden Trust were consolidated.
The latter was created in 1887 in accordance to the will of Samuel J. Tilden who wished to establish a free public library in New York. The Lenox Library contained the private collection of James Lenox, a wealthy philanthropist. The Astor Library was a publicly accessible reference library that was created with the bequest of John Jacob Astor, a German-born merchant who became the first millionaire in the US.
The first appointed director of the new library, Dr. John Shaw Billings, proposed an expansive building with a large reading room and plenty of space to efficiently store millions of books.
A competition was held to select an architect and in 1897 the firm of Carrère & Hastings was awarded the prestigious project. The location chosen for the construction was the site of the former Croton Reservoir, built in 1837-1843 as part of New York’s water system, but abandoned in 1900.
The cornerstone of the new library was laid in 1902 and the library opened nine years later, in 1911.
Carrère & Hastings built a marvelous Beaux-Arts structure which, despite the then-astounding cost of $9 million, was received with acclaim.
A protected landmark since 1967, the monumental building is constructed from white Dorset marble. Its front facade features a grand entrance with a wide staircase leading to three arches. They are flanked by double Corinthian columns that support a frieze decorated with six large statues. The statues, sculpted by Paul Wayland Bartlett, represent philosophy, romance, religion, poetry, drama and history. The entrance is guarded by two majestic lions entitled ‘Patience and Fortitude’. Both lion statues were created by Edward Clark Potter. Niches in the facade along Fifth Avenue are decorated with allegorical fountain statues representing «Truth» and «Beauty», the work of Frederick MacMonnies, a Brooklynite who trained at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.
The interior is just as grand as the exterior. The vaulted marble Astor Hall (the main lobby) and the main reading room are particularly impressive. The latter has a beautiful paneled ceiling with a series of chandeliers. Natural light enters through large arched windows. Another highlight is the DeWitt Wallace Periodical Room, which is embellished with murals, created by Richard Haas, that depict New York landmarks. Many hallways inside the library are decorated with allegorical ceiling paintings.
The library building is more than just beautiful architecture; it also works well as a library: thanks to an automated system, any book requested can be obtained in minutes.
The size of the New York Public Library and the diversity of its holdings make it one of the most highly-acclaimed libraries in the world. The library’s collections number in the tens of millions, and some of the holdings are simply magnificent – such as the Gutenberg Bible and the manuscript copy of Jefferson’s document which would become known as The Declaration of Independence.