Library Reading Room, Luxury, Legacy


The Rose Reading Room is luxurious in the way that only certain shared spaces can be. Its grandeur attracts its visitors, and is in turn amplified by their presence: the true urban symbiosis. PHOTOGRAPH BY DREW ANGERER / GETTY

It was the room in the photo above where I sat, in the early 1990s, collecting some data for a research project that would eventually become my doctoral dissertation. I had been in that room once or twice in my youth, but as an adult on a specific mission (little did I know the data collected that day would help me develop ideas that we now call entrepreneurial conservation within La Paz Group) the room barely registered in my notice. Except as a very practical place to read some historical documents.

So I am delighted to see that room again after a long time. It looked great to me the last time I saw it. Now I can say wow for different reasons. The legacy of the room is protected, and perhaps renewed for another hundred years. If you click the image and go to a larger viewing with greater detail, you will understand why the word luxury fits in the title of this post on the New Yorker website.

It is not our practice to use the word luxury because it is so laden with old and often inappropriate (considering the ecological condition of the planet, considering advances in socio-economic development, and considering other modern sensibilities) meanings. So we appreciate when others take care in how they use it:



To say that the ceiling of the Rose Main Reading Room, at the New York Public Library’s main building, on Fifth Avenue—the biggest room in the biggest public-library branch in the country’s biggest city—is an ornate piece of work is putting it mildly.Even by the building’s Beaux-Arts standards, there are a lot of gilded curlicues and cornucopias and flute-playing cherubs cavorting up there, around celestial murals of soft pink clouds. The impression that such splendor gives is one of divine order and equilibrium, but cherubs are subject to the laws of entropy just like the rest of us. In the middle of a May night in 2014, one of the plaster rosettes that flank the ceiling came loose and crashed to the ground. From the floor, fifty-two feet below, the rosettes look like 3-D doilies; up close, they’re big as a bear’s head. You would not want one to fall on yours. The Fifth Avenue branch, officially known as the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, was then celebrating its hundred and third birthday. Subsequent investigation revealed that the lifespan of the rosettes tends to max out at a century. Clearly, the time had come to renovate.

This past Wednesday morning, the reading room reopened to the public after two and a half years of repairs and restorations. It’s a pleasure to have it back. The room is one of the city’s great public spaces, a shared chamber devoted to private mental endeavors, and it’s looking good. The marble walls gleam. The ceiling fixtures, reinforced and polished, glisten. Light streams through the room’s freshly scrubbed casement windows and radiates from the bulbs of its eighteen tiered chandeliers, which hang suspended over the rows of work tables like upside-down wedding cakes. The library’s sounds are restored, too, comforting and familiar: the industrious typing and page-turning, the zippering open and shut of backpacks, the scuffing of solid wooden armchairs on floor tile. As the first murmuring visitors settled in the other day, guards strolling the aisles shushed them—preëmptively, it seemed, but understandably so. Two and a half years is a long time for a library guard to go without shushing.

If you were feeling prognostic, back in 2014, you might have considered the fallen rosette an ill omen of what could have been in store for the N.Y.P.L. if its controversial Central Library Plan were to come to pass. The C.L.P. called for the library’s Mid-Manhattan branch and its Science, Industry and Business Library to be sold and their books moved into circulation at the main building, many of whose own books would be transferred in bulk to a storage site somewhere in New Jersey. The city’s main research library, in other words, would no longer have exclusively been a research library at all, nor would its building, which was slated for a major overhaul by the architect Norman Foster, have looked like the one that generations of New Yorkers have known and loved. When the plan was finally scrapped, that June, after much criticism, its failure was almost universally declared a victory for the people. Now the library has renovated and expanded the stacks under Bryant Park which house its research volumes; when one is called up, it’s loaded onto a red “book train” that looks something like Mister Rogers’s trolley in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, for a trip to the Rose Reading Room that takes about half an hour.

When I first saw early renderings of the C.L.P.’s proposed atrium renovation, I thought it looked like a spaceship. Many architectural renderings look like spaceships, but this one really looked like a spaceship, a sleek, sketchy notion of the future that seemed bound to grow dated within five years. I’m no Prince Charles; I have nothing against Norman Foster or spaceship-style architecture, but surely there are enough sleek new buildings being constructed in this city to allow us to preserve and enjoy one whose early-twentieth-century atmosphere and patina of aspirational oldness have attracted and inspired millions of people to seek it out as a place to do the reading and writing and thinking they might otherwise struggle to accomplish at home or in a coffee shop. The Fifth Avenue main branch is a luxurious place, and not in the current New York sense of the term, when every new building constructed in the city, from the empty oligarch towers on Fifty-seventh Street’s Billionaire Row to four-story rentals in Crown Heights, come advertised as “luxury” properties. The word is greedy, used that way, a sales pitch based on the appeal of having something at home that your neighbors don’t. The Rose Reading Room is luxurious in the way that only certain shared spaces can be. Its grandeur attracts its visitors, and is in turn amplified by their presence: the true urban symbiosis…

Read the whole post here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s