The Battle Over the New York Public Library, Continued | The Nation

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Save the stacks at NYPL

Carrere and Hastings designed one of the greatest public buildings in the United States, the New York Public Library, in 1897. Finished in 1911, it stands as a monument to not only the vision of its architects but also the commitment of New Yorkers to learning and research. Removing the stacks, the most important innovation in the building, diminishes its historic significance and will be a loss to all New Yorkers. Indeed, this loss will parallel the destruction of old Penn Station as a preservation travesty.

The stacks were designed by the architects, and the library director, John Shaw Billings, to be a state-of-the-art solution to the problem of storing and delivering books to patrons. By putting them on seven levels beneath the main reading room, the designers hoped that readers could benefit from quick access to materials, while also ensuring the protection of the holdings in a sturdy, functional structure. The stacks were constructed of cast iron to be completely separate from the walls of the main building. They are a marvel of early-twentieth-century technology. Today they function as intended, but would benefit from an HVAC upgrade and better fire protection. The library recently received a multimillion-dollar renovation and facade restoration, but the stacks were ignored.

Why have the library trustees decided to remove this unique feature? Published intentions of the new library plan indicate that the main movivation for the renovation is economic. Facing high costs in runnning the eighty-seven-branch system, the trustees argue that selling two popular branch libraries, one at midtown right across the street from the main library, will allow them to consolidate facilities into one "new" circulating library. Their idea is to place this new “state-of-the-art, world-class” library inside the stack area of the old one. They argue that $150 million is too high a price to pay for renovating the existing midtown branch, but plan to spend almost $1 billion to create the new facility and renovate some of the other branch libraries. This makes no sense, either economically or as a design strategy.

Anthony Marx recently explained to Leonard Lopate of WNYC radio that the research libraries in the NYPL system, including the main library, run exclusively on endowments, while the branch libraries are publicly funded. Why, then, is it necessary to remove key portions of the largest research library in order to satisfy the needs of the branch library system? They are now separate, and could be maintained as a separate system. Moveover, the cost of renovating more modern buildings, such as the midtown branch, is less than removing massive historic iron construction at 42nd Street. Mr. Marx has had a difficult time defending the plan in public forums, because it is indefensible.

The main reason that the trustees wish to destroy the 42nd Street library has nothing to do with the stated rationale in the library plan. Wealthy patrons on the board are concerned with memorializing their own gifts, much as Stephen Schwartzman did when he got the main library named after himself for $100 million. They want to see a Starchitect-designed branch library at midtown, and believe that a little stardust from the Carrere and Hastings masterpiece will rub off when Norman Foster adds his signature to the building. The trustees came up with this plan under former director, Paul Le Clerc, during the Wall Street bubble, and can't seem to let go of it.