Only in New York can a public library become a popular tourist attraction. With the exception of the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. the New York Public Library in Manhattan also known as the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building is probably the most well known library in the United States. It is important to distinguish the definition of the New York Public Library. The Stephen A. Schwarzman Building is the centerpiece of The New York Public library system. We will refer to the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building as The New York Public Library for the remainder of this article because this article defines the history of The New York Public Library. That history began with their main branch at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building which is located at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue. However, The New York Public Library is a system of libraries located throughout the boroughs of Manhattan, The Bronx and Staten Island. Queens and Brooklyn have their own unique library systems, The New York Public Library host 92 branches.
Millions of people walk past the two Lions Patience and Fortitude into the great halls of Manhattan’s New York Public Library every year. Many of those people are tourists eager to get a glimpse of one of the world’s most famous libraries. Most people don’t think of a library as a tourist attraction. However, if you have been to the New York Public Library in Manhattan during the summer months, you will be blown away by how many tourists enter the building every day.
Like many historic churches in New York City such as St Patrick’s Cathedral, admission into the New York Public Library is free. Visitors to New York City are used to paying extremely high prices for all attractions, so seeing an extremely attractive and historic building such as the New York Public Library for free is an experience too tempting for most travelers. However, since so many people simply just want to experience the New York Public Library from a tourist point of view, many of the rooms are roped off to separate the tourists from the patrons. If your someone who uses the Library for research, reading or typical library use, it can be frustrating having tourists stare at you while you read. However, that’s New York.
Early History Of The New York Public Library
The origins of The New York Public Library began during the Progressive Era which most historians describe as the time period between 1890 and 1920. The American Industrial Revolution also known as the Second Industrial Revolution had begun in the mid 1980s and led to a whole series of problems that the Progressive Era looked to address. As the muckrakers identified the issues of labor, housing, and despair, some of the wealthiest families turned towards the concept of philanthropy. Libraries, museums and schools were the beneficiaries of philanthropists like Andrew Carnegie, The Rockefellers, The Astors and so on. However, the plans for a large public library in New York were planted in the will of New York’s Governor Samuel J. Tilden.
Origins -The New York Public Library: Samuel J. Tilden
Unlike the robber barons and founders of industry, Samuel J. Tilden had focused on law and politics. Tilden had been born into a wealthy family but spent his life fighting against corruption. His political career included a run for run for President of the United States. By the time of his death Samuel J. Tilden had accumulated a personal wealth of over seven million dollars. In his will, Samuel J. Tilden directed his fortune to be used to build a free public library in New York City. Tilden’s family contested the will. In the end, three million dollars of Samuel J. Tilden’s money was used to build what would become The New York Public Library. However, two other prominent New York families were also responsible for the birth of the New York Public library besides Samuel J. Tilden.
Origins -The New York Public Library: The Astors
The wealthy Astors family had built a library in New York City in 1849. John Jacob Astor who passed away in 1848 had left close to a half a million dollars in his will to go towards the establishment of a library. The library eventually drew criticism for its policy of not loaning books out and keeping patrons out of the stacks where the books were stored. If you wanted a book to read, you had to ask a librarian to get it for you and read it in the library. In 1898, close to fifty years after the Astor Library had opened, the libraries trustees agreed to merge with the planned New York Public Library. The building that once housed the Astor Library at 425 Lafayette Street is now a theater complex funded by Joseph Papp called The Public Theater.
Origins -The New York Public Library: James Lennox
The Astor Library was not the only library to merge with the planned New York Public Library. The philanthropist James Lennox who had been a huge collector of books, had established the Lennox Library. The library had consisted mostly of books from his private collection. James Lennox was a the son of Robert Lennox who was a Scottish merchant who left his son James a million dollar fortune.
James Lennox studied law at Columbia University in New York City. James Lennox passed the bar exam but never practiced law. His life was dedicated to collecting rare books. One of the highlights of James Lennox”s collection was his ensemble of bibles including the Gutenberg Bible. The rare collection would eventually be merged with the New York Public Library.
The merger of the Lennox Library, Astor Library and Samuel J. Tilden Trust money was arranged by New York Attorney John Bigelow. The three entities would combine their collections and money to build a library designed for the public that would become a part of New York City’s emergence as one of the worlds new epicenters of culture and commerce.
Origins -The New York Public Library: Croton Reservoir
The New York Public Library would be built on the land that had been the home of the Croton Reservoir. In the 19th century the Croton Reservoir had supplied water to New York City through pipes fed by the Croton River in North Westchester County. The Croton Reservoir was an above ground reservoir surrounded by concrete walls similar to the Oval Park Reservoir in the Bronx. The Croton Reservoir was located at 42 street and Fifth Avenue. The location is now served by both the New York Public Library and Bryant Park.
The New York Public Library : Design
The building of the New York Public Library was led by the famous librarian Dr. John Shaw Billings. The design by Dr. John Shaw Billings called for a massive library filled with seven floors of stacks. The plans by Dr. John Shaw Billings was to also install a dumbwaiter system. While most dumbwaiter systems in city apartment buildings were designed for garbage disposal, the dumbwaiter system in The New York Public Library was a brilliant method of transporting books to the circulation desk quickly from the stacks.
Like all famous buildings in New York City, various architectural firms bid on the opportunity to build the library. The job was won by the architectural firm named Carrère and Hastings. The firm got its name from architects John Merven Carrère and Thomas Hastings. Both men had studied architecture in France at École des Beaux-Arts. The design and building of The New York Public Library was based on Beaux-Arts architecture that both men studied in France. The style was based in French Neoclassicism utilizing modern materials. Elements of gothic and Renaissance art was also used in the plans.
The New York Public Library: Opening Day
It took almost 16 years for The New York Library to be built. The Croton Reservoir had to be dismantled and the land made safe for building. The heavy marble and complex design of the library took many years of manpower and money to succeed. The New York Public Library officially opened its doors to the public on May 24th 1911.
Inside The New York Public Library
There is good reason why millions of people visit The New York Public Library each year. The interior of the library is mesmerizing and the body of resources that the New York Library holds is world class in every distinction. Through the front doors visitors find themselves standing in the center of the great Astor Hall. There is a majestic feeling one gets standing in the Astor Hall. The great staircase that lines the north and south sides of the room is breathtaking. The marble floors and walls are stunning. The lighting is dim as the hall is surrounded by low lit beautiful floor candelabras.
One aspect that never gets written about in describing The New York Public Library is the hallways that connect the various departments. The halls that have been made out of marble stand quiet in passage, echoing all the brilliant minds of those who have passed them. The hopes of those yearning to learn, live, read and breath in all the possibilities of what life has to offer seem to still resonate in those stone halls. Yes, it is poetic but unless you experience walking through those hallways it’s difficult to understand.
The Main reading room in The New York Public Library is astonishing in its sheer size. The room runs the length of a football field. Long wooden tables line both sides of the room in rows. Eighteen beautiful chandeliers hang from the ceilings illuminating the room with a light that is easy on the eyes yet plentiful for reading. Large windows overlook the reading room. There are murals painted on the ceiling although many have faded over the years.The New York Public Library Stephen A. Schwarzman Building hosts multiple reading rooms all with their own style and feel.
One of our favorite finds in the New York Public Library Stephen A. Schwarzman Building was an ode to the technology of the past still being used in the present. In this world of cell phones, we found a pair of old phone booths. We are not talking the metal phone booths of the 1960s through 2000s. These were the old classic phone booths from the 1920s through 60’s. The phone booths still had the stools in them. However the doors had been removed. In the old days, phone booths like those had doors that turned on a light in the booth when closed. It was nice to be able to make a phone call in a quite booth in a private setting. Those days are gone.
The New York Public Library has many different rooms housing special collections and exhibits. While we have focused so much in the history of the Library and the building itself, the most important aspect of any library is the collection that it preserves for all to see. The New York Public Library claims to hold the largest collections of material than any other free library in the world.
As a New Yorker, I have used the library many times. On my last visit I took some pictures to share with our readers. If you are ever in New York City in the borough of Manhattan, plan a trip to the New York Public Library Stephen A. Schwarzman Building at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue. It’s not far from Times Square or Penn Station or even Union Square. You will find it an exhilarating experience.