New York Public Library (Stephen A. Schwarzman Building)

Edification value  
Entertainment value  
Should you go?  4/5
Time spent 79 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Winnie the Pooh, New York Public LibraryIn 1921,  Christopher Robin Milne  received a stuffed bear (of very little brain) for his first birthday.  Other stuffed animals joined his menagerie, inspiring his father to write stories about them. Amid the sum of human knowledge, the Library keeps Christopher Robin’s friends safe for generations of kids to come.

The Croton Distributing Reservoir stands out as a stunning architectural and engineering accomplishment, even on an island with no shortage of them.  Two city blocks long, it stretches from 40th to 42nd Streets, and halfway from Fifth to Sixth Avenue.  Built in an eccentric, Egyptian Revival style, it features walls fifty feet tall, and the zillions of gallons it holds help ensure a somewhat safe drinking water supply for Manhattan.  The promenade along the top provides unmatched vistas of the Crystal Palace, nearby Longacre Square, and indeed, stretch all the way to Long Island Sound and New Jersey, making it a huge attraction for New Yorkers and visitors alike.

Wait, what?  They tore it down?  In 1900?  I’ll be a monkey’s uncle. 

New York Public Library, New YorkWhenever I visit the New York Public Library’s spectacular main branch, I always stop and imagine the imposing ramparts of the old distributing reservoir, which stood on its location from 1842 until 1900.  There’s still a reservoir on the site, it’s just that now it stores and safeguards the sum total of knowledge of humankind.

Located in the very heart of Manhattan, the Beaux Arts library building is a marble marvel, replete with Corinthian columns, arches, and allegorical iconography.  It’s a masterpiece of the architects John Carrere and Thomas Hastings, who also designed Henry Clay Frick’s house among other things.

Something about grand edifices like this one or the nearby Grand Central Terminal makes me feel like a better person, just by visiting.    Thanks to donors whose names adorn many walls, the building is in top-notch form, as shiny and polished as the day it opened, and with much better wifi.

New York Public Library, InteriorThe Stephen A. Schwarzman Building (to give its official, donor-ific name) holds the main research collections of the library. Its stacks comprise the heart of the building and extend deep under next-door Bryant Park.  Open to the public, anyone can explore the building or apply to access the research collection. The Library additionally curates exhibits on a broad range of topics, hosts a terrific lecture series, and has a very literary gift shop.

Venezia, ti amo

Love in Venice, New York Public Library

Naughty pop-up book from Venice

Currently the library features an exhibit on love in Venice. This draws on books, prints, and other material from its collection to illustrate La Serenissima‘s romantic hold on the European imagination. 

It’s a fun little show, with pictures of sexy courtesans and a naughty pop-up book, travel guides for the Grand Tour, and works on and about Casanova, among other treasures.

Other Things to See at the New York Public Library

Ceiling, Reading Room, New York Public LibraryThe Reading Room is tremendous, a grand interior space, and I love its egalitarian-ness. Anyone with something to learn or research or study can (and does) work there, under a perfect painted cloudy sky. The Library displays a stack of recently published books that were researched at least in part there; I love the diversity.  Call me old fashioned, but it makes me happy that in this era of instant access to everything online, if you really want to research a subject, you still have to venture out of the house, fill out some book request forms, and sit and read.

New York Public Library
Fire Hose

Everything is more beautiful than it  needs to be, including the neatly labelled, screen-doored fire hoses.

Then there are the library’s various special collections. 

  • The Map Room always has something beautiful and interesting on display. Currently it features illustrated mid-century airline route maps. These evoked exotic destinations back when air travel was itself exotic, exciting, and expensive. 
  • The Print Collection has over 200,000 works on paper available for scholars to peruse. 
  • The Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, Room 320, has Charles Dickens’s letter opener. Which I find noteworthy because it was made from the paw of Dickens’s beloved cat Bob. Presumably after Bob was done using it.
New York Public Library
Moses With Tablets, a key moment in the written word

And on and on.  New York Public LibraryThe New York Public Library also talks a bit about itself, in terms of design and architecture, the symbolism baked into its art, and also in terms of information technology.  It has always been state of the art, from pneumatic tubes in the earliest days to a “book train” system that accelerates the process of retrieving material from the stacks and delivering it to waiting patrons today.

A Hamiltonian Digression

Alexander Hamilton II Portrait, New York Public Library
Daniel Huntington, “Alexander Hamilton II (1816-1889),” oil on canvas, 1890

If you wanted to research Hamilton, the New York Public Library is an excellent place for it. It hosted a terrific show last summer (an era the city will long remember as “peak Hamilton”) featuring its holdings of the man’s manuscripts, books, and letters.

The only piece of Hamiltoniana I found this visit was an oil painting of Alexander Hamilton II, who somehow manages to be A.Ham’s grandson.  I have read up and I am still not sure how that works. According to Wikipedia, A.Ham.II lived from 1816-1906, was a lawyer, fought in the Civil War, and helped found the Knickerbocker and Union League Clubs.  In short, he’d be an unlikely hero for a hip-hop-inflected Broadway musical.

Should you Visit the New York Public Library?

Patience, Lion, New York Public Library

I love the New York Public Library, from Patience and Fortitude, the lions who guard it out front, to Bryant Park in the back.  Along with the other research branches, its rich online resources, and of course the neighborhood lending libraries. 

Fortitude, Lion, New York Public Library

The NYPL plays vital roles as a repository of knowledge, a nexus of information and training and book clubs, and a source of free enlightenment, education, and entertainment.

All three of the library’s museum branches–this one, the Schomburg Center, and the Performing Arts Library–do a tremendous job creating exhibits out of their collections, bringing books, prints, and other objects to life.

Lego Lion, New York Public Library
Lego Fortitude

A couple of years back the Library’s leadership floated a plan to essentially gut the research library stacks, install a lending library and large cafe, and generally go populist in the grand, historic spaces.  Saner heads prevailed, eventually, and for the moment the Fifth Avenue library is safe.

Visiting today, I’m still relieved about that. New York needs this institution more than ever in our attention-deficient, internet-addled age.  Like Prometheus, the New York Public Library’s main branch offers a flame of enlightenment to anyone who desires it. In dark times, we need all the light we can get. Anyone who loves learning, or knowledge, or books, or beautiful buildings, should go.

New York Public Library
Prometheus Bringing Fire to Mankind

For Reference:

Address 476 Fifth Avenue (at 41st Street)
Cost  Free
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