Look! Books! The Tired Old Mid-Manhattan Library Gets a Redo

Photo: Max Touhey / Courtesy of NYPL

For half a century, New Yorkers have needed a semi-current guide to Tokyo, bibliographic sources for a high school article, or a copy of Moby-dick took the subway and headed for the Mid-Manhattan branch, the heart of the New York Public Library’s circulation system. Located in a converted Fifth Avenue department store across from the glorious Central Research Library, the place was filled with menacing shelving and kept livable by a ventilation system that didn’t move the air so much as it did. ‘got excited from time to time. This collection of awkward spaces was the kind of installation “where ridiculous, disjointed, or just permanently unoccupied New Yorkers spend hours staring at the same page of a props book or maniacally writing on blocks. – wrinkled yellow notes ”. wrote Ada Calhoun in The New Yorker. Ten years ago, it seemed doomed, too valuable as real estate to survive as a utility. A plan was made to block off a massive circulating library in the Main Branch (now the Schwarzman Building). This idea collapsed and Mid-Manhattan has endured. After three years of closure and a $ 200 million overhaul, it has now been returned to the people with a new name – the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library – and a new look, but the same multi-faceted mission.

Perhaps the biggest compliment I can give architecture is that it barely fits as architecture. Libraries have often been civic monuments, showcases the virtuosity of design, and temples that seem to consist of volumes. Sometimes greatness becomes caricatured. The Binhai Library in Tianjin, China, which in widely distributed photos appeared to be so extravagant of books that you would need a cherry picker to browse, turned out to be lined with pictures of books. But take a look at Mid-Manhattan – sorry, the Stavros Niarchos – across the street, and you might not notice a change. The building, commissioned by the Arnold Constable department store, dates from 1915, just a few years after the main library. Sturdy windows, good cleaning, and a new copper-green headgear were all that was needed to restore her dignity.

The interior is another story. Dutch company Mecanoo and renovation experts at Beyer Blinder Belle excavated the dilapidated building and reassembled a brightly lit indoor campus to serve a cross section of the public. There are spaces and staff to help record music, file taxes, learn English, tackle paperwork – to make the whole maddening business of being a Newbie a little easier. Yorker. Readers are greeted like dignitaries, with a long red runner walking past an honor guard of black-clad columns to the information desk. Delaying this first interaction with a human being is strategic; it’s a signal that most people know what they’re doing there and those who don’t will not be evaluated or kicked out the door. (The washrooms are clearly marked, and that’s usually the first question, anyway.) Right away, you have the choice, not the confusion. In what was once the main storefront at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 40th Street, movable armchairs cluster under a circular chandelier. A beautiful staircase near the entrance leads downstairs to what was once a spooky cellar and is now the teenage area and children’s center – that is, the incubator for longtime readers and library clients.

Over the past year and a half, students of all ages have been excluded from schools, after-school programs and libraries, all the infrastructure of socialization, for which Zoom is not a suitable substitute. So it is good to see a public hall designed especially for children. There is a recording studio in the basement for teenagers, with guitars on loan and a mixing console in the control room. An area for young children has quiet corners for when it all gets a bit too much, a giraffe standing guard with its head almost hitting the ceiling, and a picture window next to the book return slot. Drop a book and you can watch it travel like airport baggage along a conveyor belt and into the hands of a staff member who checks it in to be put back on the shelf. This sight is a small but revealing gesture, reminding children that a library is a learning machine and reassuring them that it will be there for the rest of their lives.

Photo: John Bartelstone / Courtesy of NYPL

Upstairs, the architects have scattered less fanciful but equally thoughtful touches. A brightly colored work of art on the ceiling, Hayal Pozanti’s Instant paradise, nods to the fluffy clouds on the ceiling of the Rose Reading Room in the Schwarzman Building. The columns that support the ceiling also support long tables, which makes their volume less inconvenient and at the same time frees up legroom. Counters run under the window sills, so readers can keep an eye on the avenue. The rooftop, once monopolized by whistling machines, now has a beer garden – is there any human enterprise that isn’t endorsed by the availability of coffee? – with a nice view of the library mothership across Fifth Avenue. The mechanics are hidden under the only fantasy of the project, a Robin Hood’s cap in sheet metal whose edges canopy the coffee tables and a high crown that echoes the Beaux-Arts fashion for mansards.

Photo: Max Touhey / Courtesy of NYPL

The master stroke, however, was to transform the old appendix of the library into its new heart. The rear of the building grows a tail that stretches along a pocket playpen. Originally, this narrow, windowless recess was only suitable for bathrooms. By cutting pieces of the second and third floors and drilling new windows in the exterior wall, the architects created a luminous atrium flanked by five new levels of open piles for 400,000 volumes. The primacy of books should not be taken for granted. When the other crucial downtown branch, the Donnell Library, was demolished in 2008, it reopened eight years later in shrunken form, a large part of its shelves has been replaced by a set of tiers. The design of Mecanoo and BBB, on the other hand, expresses empathy for users who are not impressed or distracted but focus on the worlds contained between the cardboard covers. The founding partner of Mecanoo, Francine Houben, invokes the 18th century as a model Long room at Trinity College Dublin, later transformed into a barrel vaulted basilica of books. Scholarly greatness is not the goal here, however – accessibility, durability, and flexibility are. In the Schwarzman building, piles, which have traditionally been off-limits to the public, support the entire structure, a clever feat of engineering that became a problem when volumes began to mold and shelves had to be emptied. . In the reborn Niarchos, books have a home in plain sight and within easy reach – which may seem like an obvious requirement for a public library, but is in fact a statement of faith in technology that has been repeatedly declared obsolete.

Photo: Max Touhey / Courtesy of NYPL

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