One morning in the spring of 2010, while standing in line in the New York Public Library’s majestic Rose Reading Room, I was approached by a middle-aged librarian, a man I had known for years; we had common interests and would frequently chat while he was on duty. He read The Nation and knew I wrote for it. On this particular morning, he leaned over and whispered into my ear: “Our trustees are planning to sell the library across the street”—by which he meant the Mid-Manhattan Library, a decrepit facility on 40th Street and Fifth Avenue. “It stinks,” he continued. “You should look into it.”
I was busy with other projects and let his tip go. But a year later, I received an assignment from this magazine to profile Anthony Marx, the New York Public Library’s incoming president. Early in my research, I quickly grasped what the librarian had tried to tell me a year earlier: The NYPL’s leadership—aided by the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton—had conceived a wildly ambitious transformation plan. The grand library at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue would undergo a massive renovation in which 3 million books would be removed from the historic stacks in the center of the building and sent to an off-site storage facility; the stacks would then be demolished, and a new, modern library (designed by the celebrated British architect Norman Foster) would be built in the space that, for a century, had held the books. Foster would create a library within a library, one that carried a heavy price tag: $300 million. To pay for this Central Library Plan (CLP), two nearby libraries that occupied prime real estate—the Mid-Manhattan Library and the Science, Industry, and Business Library on 34th Street and Madison Avenue—would be sold. In a soaring Manhattan real-estate market, the NYPL (which is the subject of Frederick Wiseman’s latest film, Ex Libris) would not be excluded from its share of the spoils.
But the CLP was a castle in the sky, developed—in absolute secrecy—in the heady, freewheeling years before the crash of 2008, when many American libraries and museums were hastily expanding their facilities. The NYPL, whose finances have been precarious since the late 1950s, had virtually no money of its own to invest in this real-estate and construction scheme; moreover, the sale of the two midtown libraries would not generate enough funds to cover the cost of the $300 million renovation project at 42nd Street. Taxpayer money would be required, and then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg was ready to give it: $150 million in city funds. The library’s most powerful trustee, Stephen Schwarzman—chairman of the investment firm Blackstone, and now an adviser to President Trump—was also firmly committed to Foster’s renovation and was prepared to help pay for it.
When the public learned about a plan that Sam Roberts, the urban-affairs correspondent for The New York Times, called “radical,” dismay and fury ensued. Two thousand scholars and writers signed a petition urging its cancellation; two prominent architecture critics (the late Ada Louise Huxtable of The Wall Street Journal and Michael Kimmelman of the Times) published devastating critiques; and a small but determined group of activists began to coalesce, with the aim of saving both the 42nd Street and Mid-Manhattan libraries.