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Tour the New York Public Library

Home > New York > Tours | Historic Houses
by Joann Jovinelly (subscribe)
I'm a freelance writer/photographer living in the East Village neighborhood of New York City.
Published March 1st 2011
This year, the New York Public Library (NYPL) celebrates its centennial birthday, having been erected in 1911 after the two-year long destruction of the Croton Reservoir on Fifth Avenue and Forty-second Street. Designed by a team of young, inexperienced architects, John Merven Carrère and Thomas Hastings, the structure was revolutionary in that it was self-supporting: the Carnegie-steel constructed bookshelves known as the Stacks helped support the expansive and majestic Reading Room without the obstruction of columns.


The original idea for creating the Stacks was proposed by the library's first director, John Shaw Billings, who wanted the public reading room on the top floor positioned directly over the chamber where books were stored. Even in 1911, patrons in the Reading Room requested a book on a slip of paper that was delivered by pneumatic tube to a librarian in the Stacks who then found the volume and sent it up to the reading room via a vertical elevator system in less than six minutes. The Stacks represent the library's Main Research Collection totaling more than 4.5 million titles.


Now is among the best moments in history to experience the NYPL. This past February marks the completion of a three-year, $50 million restoration of the Beaux Arts structure, which was nicknamed the People's Palace. More than 7,000 repairs were made to the building, including cleaning its façade, replacing cracked or damaged stones, overhauling the roof, replacing glass windows, and mending its lighting fixtures like the massive torchères and chandeliers.


Start your self-guided tour on the outside of the building, noting details in its exterior. Constructing the NYPL took 12 years and 530,000 cubic feet of white Vermont marble that hasn't been this brilliant since opening day. Examine the three porticos and the six attic figures on the façade. Each 11-foot high figural sculpture was designed by Paul Wayland Bartlett to symbolically represent (from left to right) History, Drama, Poetry, Religion, Romance, and Philosophy.


Animals also figure prominently on the façade and surrounding pedestals, including dolphins, turtles, birds, dogs, eagles, rams, snakes, oxen, and more; the two lions that flank Fifth Avenue—nicknamed Patience and Fortitude by former three-time Mayor Fiorello La Guardia—guard the massive structure. Two fountains on either side, designed by Frederick MacMonnies, keep things balanced and bare the inscriptions: "Above all things, Truth beareth away the victory" and "Beauty old yet ever new, Eternal voice and inward word."


Upon entering, you'll be mesmerized by Astor Hall and its two staircases. The NYPL is yours to freely wander, noting various specialized rooms devoted to U.S. history, local genealogy, maps, periodicals, and resources on microfilm. The Dewitt Wallace Periodical Room, named for the founder of Reader's Digest, the third-floor McGraw Rotunda, with its mural of Prometheus in the clouds, as well as the rare map room are exquisite sites to behold.


Still, little can prepare you for the breathtaking Rose Reading Room, literally a two-block long span lined with huge windows that spill sunlight along long oak reading tables. Many major authors have called this room home, including Norman Mailer, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Elizabeth Bishop, E.L. Doctorow, and Alfred Kazin, who said the space made him, "restless with the need to grab up every book." Visitors will be delighted to learn that the NYPL offers the most modern amenities alongside its vast history, with Wi-Fi throughout the building and grounds, and myriad places to plug in laptops and cell phones. Above the 52-foot-high ceilings are murals that depict an infinite sky.


The recently completed restoration project—part of a much larger $300 billion dollar NYPL expansion effort—will remove at least three floors of Stacks under the Rose Reading Room to make way for a circulating library inside the land-marked building as a way to further democraticize it for the general public.

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Why? To see a century-old building come to life.
When: Daily, 10AM-6PM
Where: Fifth Avenue and Forty-second Street
Cost: Free
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