Justin Davidson: All the Panic Over the New York Public Library’s Renovation Plan Is Overwrought

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Photo: Rendering by dbox/Foster + Partners

Where does the soul of a building dwell, and what can destroy it? If you dismantle a crumbling stone wall and reassemble it with new mortar, does it remain the wall it was before? Would replacing the glass on the Apple Store’s cube create zombie architecture, outwardly identical but fundamentally transformed? This metaphysical conundrum is at the core of the battle over the New York Public Library’s Carrère and Hastings headquarters, which is destined for a makeover that, depending on your point of view, will either resurrect or disembowel it.

For months, bookish loyalists have been howling about a $300 million plan to divide the NYPL’s research collection between below-ground vaults and offsite storage to make room for a circulating library. Researchers justifiably hate the prospect of  many rarely called-for books going into deep storage, retrievable only after a day’s wait. But the Mid-Manhattan Branch across the street has been in a state of decrepitude virtually since it opened in 1970, and relocating it (and the smaller Science, Industry, and Business Library at 34th Street) into the main Fifth Avenue building makes elegant sense. Selling off the unneeded real estate would supplement a $150 million grant from the city, free up money for maintenance and librarians, keep the collections whole, and yield considerably more public space altogether than currently exists in all three institutions combined.

Even so, distinguished writers have launched a barrage of verbal missiles at a design they haven’t seen, warning that the plan would turn the august institution into a Twitter-friendly aviary, a “hollowed-out hybrid of new and old,” and “a palace of presentism.” The scholars’ sanctum would be thrown open to high-school students, pulp-novel seekers, heat-seeking homeless people, and those whose idea of reading is scanning headlines. Never mind that all those groups have been using the reading rooms for years.

Now we finally have schematic drawings by Foster + Partners, and though they’re far from final, it’s wonderful to see intelligent architecture trump panicky rhetoric. Since the day the library opened in 1911, anyone, from the barely literate to the Nobel laureate, could pass between the friendly lions and climb the imperial-scale stairs to the third-floor reading rooms, with their profusion of sunlight and carved timber, and their great oak tables burnished by millions of elbows. But temples grow shabby, books decay, funds run short. The architects and administrators are tackling an inescapable trilemma: You can safeguard the library’s mission, its books, or its physical structure, but you can’t keep all three exactly as they are.

Recently, I clattered down a metal staircase into the claustrophobic and endless honeycomb where 4 million volumes molder away in a warm, damp fug. This is both the library’s heart and its skeleton. Thickets of iron columns and seven levels of tightly gridded shelves, held in place by ornamental cast-iron plates, support the upper floors. The library’s habitués harbor a great affection for this ink-and-paper habitat—or for the idea of it. The research collection’s stacks are almost mythically inaccessible: whenever a call number is dropped into the building’s bowels, a library page (aptly named) scampers down the aisles and places books on a conveyor belt like hunks of coal in a mine. None of that needs to change, except that the books — and the pages — will both enjoy a better quality of air.

For a while, it seemed like almost the entire research collection would be banished to New Jersey, and books would be trucked back on request. Some are still headed for exile — mostly those that have been digitized — but the majority will fit in a soon-to-be-reconditioned, climate-controlled vault below Bryant Park. Next time you glide across the ice at Christmastime, think of all the words beneath your blades.

With the help of some virtuoso engineering, Foster would open up the stacks’ hidden acres. Right now, entering from Fifth Avenue, you pass into Astor Hall, where a gently vaulted ceiling hovers above a sugar-white cornucopia of classical details. Continue through the colonnade and into the Gottesman Exhibition Hall, where an exhibit on the history of lunch, complete with oyster carts and Automats, currently spreads out beneath an elaborately carved ceiling. At the far end of the hall, a pedimented door suggests more splendors beyond. Actually, it’s sealed; the stacks lurk back there. But in Foster’s vision, that doorway leads to a Narnia full of sunshine that filters through the trees in Bryant Park. Isn’t this what libraries are supposed to do — unlock doorways to unsuspected worlds?

It’s not clear from the provisional renderings, but this reimagined space — an old-fashioned lending library, despite fears of a bookless techno-center — could prove as spectacular in its high-gloss, millennial way as the ornate rooms of a century ago. A dozen new steel trees would rise 60 feet, branching at the top to carry the weight of the reading rooms above. Three mezzanines, clothed in warm brass and wood, will hang in this airy atrium. The cast-iron endplates retrieved from the old stacks would be affixed to the new shelves. The circulating library will face the back of the building, where a façade of vertical stone piers turns with startlingly modern austerity towards Bryant Park. In the new atrium, those existing piers are visible from inside, too, linking old exuberance and new sleekness.

Photo: Rendering by dbox/Foster + Partners

Not everything has been resolved. Most visitors will likely enter the circulating library from 42nd Street, but in the architectural model that will soon be on display in Astor Hall, you can sense the new space aching to bust out in other directions. An ill-advised grand staircase swoops down as if to welcome visitors coming in from Bryant Park. But no such entrance exists or ever will, since the exterior is landmarked and untouchable.

Renovating a venerated building means deciding where it’s safe to cut and what to leave alone. The glorious reading rooms remain inviolate, as do the special collections and the lecture hall downstairs called the Celeste Bartos Forum (which was once a circulating library). Many other spaces will be recovered for public use. It’s worth remembering how much of the building is currently off limits: Wander down almost any marbled hallway, and you will hit a “Staff Only” sign behind which spaces of Beaux-Arts grandeur — the tapestried Trustees Room, for example — are sprinkled among lugubrious offices. (In one administrator’s lair, carved-wood window seats are set at kindergartener height, and are now piled high with file folders: This was the children’s library, once, and will be again.) Foster’s design preserves, protects, and restores the library’s visible areas. In exchange, it operates on the building’s guts, baring a vast hidden chamber. That’s a tradeoff I can happily accept.