This May 20, 2011, photo shows the marble lion “Fortitude,” one of a pair created by Edward Clark Potter in 1911, at the main entrance to the New York Public Library in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
On the morning of February 1, Anthony Marx, president and CEO of the New York Public Library, met with a group of business and political leaders who had assembled in a majestic room inside the 42nd Street library. Marx was introduced by a prominent Manhattan real estate developer, William Rudin. Near the end of his spirited presentation, Marx digressed from library policy and asked his audience to buy commercial real estate in the vicinity of Fifth Avenue and 40th Street—the location of the Mid-Manhattan Library, which the NYPL is determined to sell under its Central Library Plan (CLP), the core of which envisions a colossal, $300 million–plus transformation of the 42nd Street library by the architect Norman Foster.
The CLP has been the subject of mounting controversy for almost eighteen months. In the spring of 2012, hundreds of scholars and writers protested the NYPL’s scheme to remove 3 million books from 42nd Street—a backlash that prompted the NYPL to raise $8 million to build shelving for 1.5 million books under Bryant Park, behind the library. In December, the late architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable declared, in her final essay, that “after extensive study of the library’s conception and construction I have become convinced that irreversible changes of this magnitude should not be made in this landmark building.” On June 7, Michael Kimmelman, architecture critic of The New York Times, told New York magazine: “If you’re going to be spending untold millions on this plan, it better be what the city really, really needs. Otherwise, this will be considered one of the calamities of the city’s history, along with Penn Station.”
On June 27, at a hearing sponsored by New York State Assemblyman Micah Kellner, Marx promised not only an independent audit of the CLP, but also an analysis of the costs of rehabilitating the nearby Mid-Manhattan Library instead, as critics have urged. In early July, two lawsuits were filed by scholars opposed to the CLP, and on July 12, the NYPL signed a legal document stipulating that it would not undertake construction or demolition work in the stacks area at 42nd Street at the present time. (In its rush to execute the CLP, the NYPL has already removed 3 million books from the stacks.)
For two years, the NYPL has refused to discuss the CLP in detail, and many questions remain unanswered. How and why did one of the world’s greatest libraries get into the real estate business? How did the CLP, which was formulated between 2005 and early 2007, advance into late 2011 without any significant public debate or discussion? Who first conceived the idea of demolishing book stacks that were constructed by Carrère and Hastings in the first decade of the twentieth century? What role did the Bloomberg administration play in the creation of the CLP? Finally, what was the role of Booz Allen Hamilton—the gargantuan consulting firm whose tentacles reach into the defense, energy, transportation and financial service sectors—which was hired by the NYPL in 2007 to formulate what became known inside the trustee meetings as “the strategy”?