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Stephen A. Schwarzman Building

 reading room, Seeing New York with Fornaro, from N.Y. Sun, Evening, about Jan 3, 1914., Digital ID 465331, New York Public Library

  • The Library's building was built on the site of the old Croton Reservoir.  Some stones from the reservoir were used to construct the original foundation and can now be seen from the lower levels of the South Court building.
  • The Library's floor plan was sketched on a postcard in 1897 by John Shaw Billings, The New York Public Library's first Director.  As the postcard shows, both the northern and southern courtyards were in place from the start.
  • The building, which took 16 years to design and complete, was the largest marble building ever built in the U.S. at the time it opened in 1911.  Using 530,000 cubic feet of marble, with exterior marble facing 12 inches thick, it was more than six times the marble used in the New York Stock Exchange and the New York Chamber of Commerce combined.  Its cornerstone, laid in place on November 10, 1902, weighs 7.5 tons and holds a relic box containing contracts between New York City and the Library, photographs, newspapers, and letters from the Trustees and Mayor of New York.
  • The marble chosen originated in two quarries on Dorset Mountain in Vermont.  Over sixty-five percent of the stone quarried failed to meet the architects' rigid standards.  The stone rejected by the Library was incorporated into other contemporary buildings including Harvard Medical School.
  • On opening day in 1911, the first book requested from the main stacks was Delia Bacon's Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare Unfolded.  The book, much to the staff's chagrin, was not in the catalog and a staff member donated the book two days later.  Fifty years later it was discovered that the interchange had been a setup; the staff member had hoped to generate publicity for the book. The first book to actually be delivered from the main stacks, a speedy seven minutes after the call slip was deposited, was Nravstvennye idealy nashego vremeni (Moral ideas of our time: Friedrich Nietzsche and Leo Tolstoy) by Nikolai I. Grot.
  • The landmark building was originally fueled by coal, needing more than 20 tons a day, and producing ash that had to be carted away daily.
  • Horses were both frequent and welcomed visitors to the landmark Library's open-air southern courtyard, designed as the service and delivery center.  Books were delivered by horse-drawn carts via the covered driveway from 40th Street.  Tie posts and a horse trough complemented the southern courtyard's other fixtures, which included a marble fountain in its center and functioning bronze lampposts and hydrants.
  • Later the southern courtyard became the recreational and social center for Library staff.  A one-story "bungalow" was constructed in 1919 to serve as a lunchroom and was the only above-ground addition made to the Library's exterior until 1999, when construction began on the South Court building.
  • In its early history, the south courtyard played host to an array of events including receptions, readings, amateur drama performances, puppet shows, and at least one home-grown "circus." For a pageant celebrating the Library's fortieth anniversary, the court was hung with Japanese lanterns and toy balloons.  Dressed in turn-of-the-century costumes, staffers regaled the audience with scenes from the Library's early history and a revue of satirical skits.  The evening culminated with dancing in the main lobby.
  • After automobiles replaced the horses, parking was only sporadically permitted.  In 1950, after the central fountain was demolished due to chronic city-wide water shortages, the courtyard was converted to a parking lot.  The courtyard's reign as the Library's center of social activities was over.
  • The marble floors of the Library were deemed so hard that in 1911 all employees were supplied with rubber soled shoes.  The O'Sullivan Company quickly exploited the fact and placed advertisements urging consumers to visit the Library, where the employees used the company's heels.
  • John Fedeler, the first superintendent of the Library, lived in an eight-room apartment on the mezzanine floor from 1911 to 1941, raising two children there. His daughter was born in the building. His son, John H.E. Fedeler, assumed the position of superintendent in 1941. He was born at the NY Produce Exchange, where his father was superintendent prior to working at the Library.
  • Library employees once ran a Co-operative General Store in the building's basement.  The store opened June 9, 1920, and carried everything from stockings to sardines.  It sold groceries and general merchandise, canned and fresh foodstuffs, produce, tobacco products, even clothing and sewing notions.
  • Norbert Pearlroth, the Ripley's Believe It or Not! Researcher from 1923 to 1975, found all the information for the newspaper feature using the huge collection in the Library's Main Reading Room. A speaker of several languages with a prodigious memory, Mr. Pearlroth came to the Library each day, and relied on serendipity to find his amazing facts. It's estimated that he reviewed 7,000 books each year (that's 364,000 in 52 years)!
  • In 1926, the Library boasted six former Olympic athletes on its staff (four Americans and two Danes): a hurdler, three high jumpers, one broad jumper, a mountain climber, an oarsman/canoeist, and a discus thrower.
  • The winter of 1929-30 was the most active period in the Library's history. It was not uncommon for there to be 800 to 1,000 people in the Main Reading Room, a "standing room only" capacity. The single busiest day in the Main Reading Room was December 30, 1929, when 8,939 books were requested.
  • After Pearl Harbor was attacked, the most valuable volumes and manuscripts at the Library were moved to bank vaults around New York City. 12,000 items from the collection, valued at that time at $10 million, were temporarily moved to a secret location 250 miles away.
  • Espionage at the Library! Whittaker Chambers, Alger Hiss's accuser, was an NYPL employee (1923-27) whose conversion to Communism was the result of a meeting with a party member in the Library. He was dismissed from the Library for stealing books.
  • More espionage: F.B.I. Agent Earl Edwin Pitts met with a Russian KGB senior official in Room 228 of the Library in July 1987, and began working as an informer. He was caught in an F.B.I. sting operation in December 1996.
  • You might run into just about anyone at the Library. Famous users have included Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Alfred Kazin, Norman Mailer, Princess Grace (Kelly), Helen Hayes, Frank McCourt, Somerset Maugham, Marlene Dietrich, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, John Updike, Cecil Beaton, Lillian Gish, Tom Wolfe, Francis Ford Coppola, Diana Rigg, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Joe Frazier, and E.L. Doctorow.
  • What can you discover at the Library?  Edward Land developed the process for the Polaroid Land Camera; Chester Carlson researched photoconductivity and electrostatics to invent the Xerox photocopier; Marchette Chute, author of Shakespeare in London, did all her research without ever going to London; and DeWitt Wallace read and condensed articles that he republished in his magazine, Reader's Digest. 
  • In June 2002, the Library's South Court building, a six-story glass structure that rises within the southern courtyard of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, opened.  It is the first permanent above-ground structure to be added to the landmark Library since the building opened in 1911.

Library History Bibliography