Tomorrow, after two years of banishment and a $12 million restoration, scholars will once again flow into the New York Public Library’s Rose Reading Room, stake out turf on the long wooden tables, and bask in the rare form of luxury that is available to all. One of New York’s indoor marvels — though not, weirdly, an officially landmarked interior — the reading room has been providing polychrome relief from black-on-white texts ever since the library’s Fifth Avenue headquarters opened in 1911. High above the open volumes and bowed heads, a heaven of dawn-tinged painted clouds and gilded flowers watched over the acquisition of knowledge. When a 16-pound hunk of ornamental plaster plummeted to the floor in the middle of the night in 2014, it felt like the architecture was rebelling against the intellectual world. The attack seemed particularly shocking because the ceiling had been restored in the 1990s and still glowed with apparent good health.
The culprit wasn’t immediately clear. Engineers and library staff ruled out sabotage, water damage, vibrations from nearby construction, or systemic failure. They hoped to get away with making spot repairs; instead they wound up filling the room with scaffolding and examining the entire patient, inch by inch. Workers tapped custom-made mallets against every square inch of the ceiling, testing for pockets of weakness. While the scaffolding was up, conservators examined the painted sky murals at the center of the room and found that sloppy restorers had once slathered them with brown shellac so that they resembled a London fog more than they did celestial enlightenment. They decided to replace them with exact replicas, applied like wallpaper over the original.
Ornamental ceilings like the library’s Beaux Arts masterpiece are made of plaster mixed with fibrous reinforcement — horsehair or burlap a century ago, synthetic mesh today. After a chunk of the stuff peeled off a balcony in London’s Apollo Theater during a performance in 2013, crashing onto audience members below, it seemed like an old technology might have reached its expiration date, and that century-old plasterwork would start raining down all over. But Eric Hammarberg, the engineer at Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates who oversaw the reading room’s restoration, insists that a properly built plaster ceiling can endure more or less indefinitely if it isn’t abused along the way.
“We wrapped cables around each rosette, loaded it up with weights, and found that it could take more than 300 pounds without budging,” Hammarberg says. The rosette that had broken free had been damaged at some point, probably years ago, perhaps when a worker in the attic space above the ornamental ceiling inadvertently knocked it with a heavy tool.
In the end, workers anchored every one of the ceiling’s 864 rosettes with fresh steel cable, whether it seemed wobbly or not. They also mapped every crack in the plaster — two linear miles altogether — and repaired 3,000 feet of them. Fixing the rest would have been counterproductive, since the building creates the fissures as it breathes. Temperature fluctuations cause plaster, wood, and steel to expand and contract at different rates, a phenomenon that no amount of cosmetic tinkering can eliminate. Cracks wider than a quarter-inch were closed up with modern sealant; the rest were left alone.
When the reading room reopens tomorrow, it will fill quickly with researchers who have been aching to work in a glorious, light-filled setting instead of the more prosaic areas where they have spent their exile. A lot has changed: The books have moved from the stacks below their feet to new vaults below Bryant Park. Their requests will be delivered by a new automated retrieval system, which resembles a miniature version of the trains that once hauled coal out of mines. But the essence of the place remains proudly unaltered. In an age that clocks gratification in nanoseconds, both the reading room and its users uphold the traditions of work that is slow, detailed, and magnificently inefficient.