Unless a lawsuit stops it, the 42nd street New York Public Library will soon plunge ahead with the Central Library Plan. For those uncomfortable with a massive overhaul of the city’s centuries-old library, a lawsuit will be brought the New York City Supreme Court tomorrow, this Tuesday.
Under the Central Library Plan (CLP), the NYPL would undergo a $300-million-plus transformation, in which it would sell the Mid-Manhattan and Science, Industry, and Business branches to real estate developers, and consolidate them inside the larger 42nd Street branch. NYPL would demolish the historic stacks from that branch, and move much of its inventory into a circulating library system, in offsite storage. According to the library, the state-of-the-art storage would save books from deteriorating stacks, and the sales from the Mid-Manhattan and SIBL sites would solve a major cash flow problem.
CLP’s architect Norman Foster also views the transformation as a way to prepare the library system for the digital age; the new designs will allow for more public space, and rid the libraries of book stacks that fail to comply with current fire safety codes. Many others worry that these colossal changes could seriously compromise the library’s public value and the structural soundness of the historic building.
Some, like New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman, argue that the CPL overlooks cheaper alternatives; the cost of demolition could easily rise upwards of $350 million. Kimmelman considers the design for the replacement a “space-wasting” mess, which involves taking down weight-bearing stacks which an engineer compared to “cutting the legs off a table while dinner is being served.” The benefits are too unclear, and at the very least, he says, “[m]ore time is needed to figure this thing out”.
And for those who fear the NYPL’s involvement in the real-estate business, there’s precedent. In 2009, the NYPL sold the Donnell Library, just across the street from MoMA; currently the site is under construction, to be turned into a fifty-story hotel and condo, with a little library in it. It will open in 2014.
A hearing for the Citizens Defending Libraries lawsuit against the NYPL will take place tomorrow at the New York City Supreme Court (60 Centre Street, courtroom 341, from 11 am – 12 pm), and it sounds like the group Save NYPL will be there. The suit’s plaintiffs include Pulitzer Prize winner Edmund Morris and arts writer and editor Annalyn Swan. Their affidavits all make a clear case for stopping the plan, so we’re publishing a few excerpts.
Edmund Morris is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, who has researched a good portion of his books— such as Theodore Rex, Beethoven: The Universal Composer, and Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan—at the New York Public Library.
I would like to bring the Court’s attention to a peculiarity of scholarly research, and that is the serendipity of “accidental” discovery. A chance reference, say, in a 1907 newspaper article to some book the President is reading, will send a scholar hastening from the microfilm room to the reading room to submit a request slip for that very edition. And when the book is delivered, perhaps in fragile condition wrapped and tied with string, an old photograph may tumble out, tucked inside a hundred years ago by an anonymous person, and inscribed verso with
a few copperplate words that reveal something hitherto unknown about both author and President. (I am referring to an actual incident in my own work.) The weaving of the worldwide web has made serendipitous “browsing” easy for scholars interested primarily in digital knowledge — which is to say, information accumulated from the 1980s onward. But for those of us who roam the full landscape of human history, a great research library full of interrelated materials of every conceivable type is an inexhaustible resource. That is, unless it is itself exhausted of its own precious contents.
Annalyn Swan is an arts editor, writer, and co-author of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography on Willem de Kooning, de Kooning: An American Master.
By its nature, researching a book or scholarly article is a fluid affair. One comes to the library to read through a number of books that seem promising from an initial search of the library’s offerings online. In theory, it seems very practical that one goes online to order books in advance, and then, once informed that they have arrived, goes to the library to request them. In practice, however, the system does not work this way. It is often virtually impossible to tell what the content of any given book is really about until it is sitting in front of you. What sounds perfect on paper, in short, often turns out to be anything but. For example, not long ago I requested a book on gay culture related to Tangiers, where Francis Bacon went for extended periods throughout the 1950s. But what arrived was not what I expected, Instead, it was a sort of compendium of gay figures who had at some point lived in Tangiers. It was only by going through the book’s footnotes and bibliography that I found references to books that were much more helpful to me.
Christabel Gough is a historical preservationist and longtime user of the 42nd street library.
The library is important from the standpoint of historic preservation, not only for its beauty and its iconic place at a crossroads of the city, but because it is a fine example of the work of those American builders and architects at the turn of the 20th Century who adapted the Beaux Arts/City Beautiful tradition and made it their own through new efficiencies and new interior configurations to meet contemporary needs. They made good use of the classical orders and classically derived decoration without in any way sacrificing functionality, rational circulation through space, or even expression of function on the building’s shell. The Central Library’s west facade has been cited by critics as an early example of modernism, since the unusual long slit windows both light and express the presence of the book Stacks. Like Grand Central Station, or the original Penn Station, the library is a fusion of new performance standards and old tradition, an efficiently functioning machine as well as a delight to the eye. Gutting the interior obliterates its real place in architectural history.
Charles Warren is an architect and co-authored the monograph Carrere & Hastings, Architects
(Acanthus Press), the firm which designed and built the main 42nd street branch.
Storing and retrieving books are central to the mission of the New York Public Library; its building was designed exactly for that purpose. Removing the books and lengthening the time it takes to obtain them is an irresponsible erosion of that mission. The error is compounded when the structure meant to store the books and support the room most crucial totheir use is ripped out. The custom made cast iron and Carnegie steel utilized in the structure of the Stacks are irreplaceable. Thus, removal of the Stacks will result in an irreparable alteration to one of New York’s most historic buildings. It is a destructive plan that jeopardizes the functioning of the library in the short term and diminishes it in perpetuity. To allow any part of this demolition to proceed without a specific plan for what is to replace this efficient, significant engineering achievement is to allow irresponsible vandalism of public property.