One of the New York City’s most revered and cherished icons is celebrating its 100th birthday this year – and thanks to a monumental restoration, it looks just as beautiful as it did on the day it opened as “The People’s Palace” in 1911.
The New York Public Library has just completed a three-year, $50 million restoration and preservation of the landmark Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on 42nd Street, which has stood as an impressive symbol of opportunity and access for the people of New York City and the world for a century. The unveiling of the newly restored façade represents the start of a year-long celebration in the building’s honor, which will look back with reverence at all it has meant to the public while also looking towards a bright and exciting future.
The restoration project involved the repair of over 7,000 instances of deterioration or distress in the historic 150,000-square-foot façade, which was designed by legendary architects Carrère and Hastings. In addition, the façade’s Vermont marble was cleaned and returned to its brilliant white color and the roof, sculptures and bronze doors and window frames were all restored.
“I’m ecstatic that – with the generous help from elected officials, private donors and brilliant artisans – we’ve succeeded in returning one of the most important library buildings in history to its original beauty and grandeur,” said NYPL President Paul LeClerc, who was instrumental in launching and overseeing the façade restoration project. “Its magnificence is a visual reminder of how centrally important reading, learning, and creating are to a vibrant and democratic society. No other city in the world, now or ever, has made such immense collections and superb services freely available to everyone.”
NYPL Chairman of the Board Catherine C. Marron said, “Just in time for its 100th birthday, the Library’s landmark 42 Street building has undergone a transformation that has left it as magnificent as the day it opened on May 23, 1911. The Trustees and staff are immensely proud of the project, and thrilled that anyone who walks up the building’s front steps into a world of access and opportunity will now see the building in all of its original glory. Simply put, the building is beautiful, and poised to stand as an architectural and cultural landmark for another 100 years and beyond.”
Restoration of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building's façade (which did not include the two iconic lions Patience and Fortitude, which were restored in 2004 with a private gift and only cleaned during this project) was made possible through the generosity of the Empire State Development Corporation, Virginia James, the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York, Community Capital Assistance Program, Judy and John M. Angelo, Mary McConnell Bailey, and Jacqueline Fowler.
Special thanks to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, former Governor George Pataki, State Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, and State Senator Liz Krueger.
“For 100 years, the New York Public Library on 42nd Street has been one of New York City’s most celebrated landmarks,” said Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. “Thanks to the façade restoration project, the library – long a central and welcoming place for New Yorkers – has reclaimed its original brilliance.”
“I applaud and thank the New York Public Library for once again restoring a cherished piece of New York City history,” said Speaker Christine C. Quinn. “The library is not only a New York City icon, it is also a beautiful landmark that is known world-wide as the center for information and culture in the heart of Manhattan. One of the most important library buildings in history, the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on 42nd Street will now continue to be just as beautiful as it was the first day it opened its doors.”
“The New York Public Library is one of New York State’s unique treasures,” said Empire State Development Executive Director Peter W. Davidson. “With an impressive research collection, it is one of the largest libraries in the country. Its rich heritage and landmark status made this restoration project incredibly important and I applaud the New York Public Library for their efforts to restore the library to its original splendor.”
The façade restoration project was managed by NYPL’s Capital Planning and Construction Office and Vice President for Capital Planning and Construction Joanna Pestka. The lead architects were Timothy Allanbrook and Kyle Normandin of Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates (WJE). The prime restoration contractor was Nicholson & Galloway.
"The entire team, starting from the architect, and including all contractors, artists and managers, not only represented world class skills in preservation and restoration, but they dedicated their whole knowledge, attention, time and heart to the project from day one to the end. It was a very focused, thoughtful and carefully executed work.,” Pestka said. “The whole project was a labor of love."
A survey of the building’s condition by WJE in preparation for the Centennial revealed severe deterioration and soiling of the façade, particularly in areas such as the Corinthian column capitals, lion head keystones and scroll modillions. The survey also revealed roof damage, severe oxidization of the building’s bronze doors and window casings, and cracking, surface loss and other problems with the sculptures, including the six colossal figures by Paul Wayland Bartlett over the columns, and the two fountains by sculptor Frederick MacMonnies, who also carved the Washington Square Park Arch and the Nathan Hale statue in City Hall Park.
Actual restoration began in 2008. Repairs included installing over 2,000 individually carved marble stones - called dutchmen - to replace damaged pieces of the façade. These replaced elements – such as the noses and chins of the lion head keystones – were carved by Master Stone Carver Shi-Hia Chen of B & H Art-In-Architecture Limited. All of the sculptures – originally carved by a series of famous artists - were repaired under the watchful eye of Mark Rabinowitz at Conservation Solutions, the fine art conservation consultant.
Other contractors involved in the restoration include Milner + Carr Conservation LLC (stone conservation), Stuart Dean (architectural bronze restoration) and URS Corporation (construction managers).
"Our goal in the restoration of this glorious building was to balance four factors: preservation of original material, cleanliness, safety, and cost,” said architect Allanbrook. “These sometimes contradictory factors influenced every decision from the overall restorative treatments to the individual repairs on each piece of marble. All of us, from draftsman to craftsman, are extremely proud of the accomplishment and I believe that the results speak for themselves. For me personally, this has been a career defining project."
The end result of the work is a completely restored, prime example of Beaux-Arts architecture returned to the original grandeur and form that prompted New York City Mayor William Jay Gaynor to say in 1913, “Who can pass by that building for the first time without stopping?”
“The New York Public Library’s superb and careful restoration once again demonstrates its deep respect for this masterpiece of Beaux-Arts architecture,” said Landmarks Preservation Commission Chairman Robert B. Tierney.
The concept for the building began in 1895, with the formation of The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations. Before then, New York City relied on private libraries, particularly the Astor Library founded by John Jacob Astor and the Lenox Library formed by James Lenox. When former New York governor Samuel Tilden left a large portion of his fortune for the formation of a public library system, the Tilden Trust forged a historic partnership with the two private libraries, and created the mission “to establish and maintain a free public library and reading room in the City of New York.”
In 1896, a bill was passed by the State Legislature authorizing the razing of the Croton Reservoir and the construction of a library building.
On May 23, 1911, the building – which immediately became known for its architecture, sculpture and ornamentation – opened after 12 years of construction.
One of the most recognizable features remains the magnificent The Deborah, Jonathan F. P., Samuel Priest, and Adam R. Rose Main Reading Room on the third floor, which is nearly the length of a football field and offers 636 seats and 42 tables. The beautiful room, with 18 chandeliers, ceiling murals and fine wooden furniture, is reminiscent of the great libraries of Europe with one notable exception: the only criterion for using the room is curiosity.
On the building’s opening day, United States President Howard Taft said, “This day crowns a work of National importance. The dedication of this beautiful structure for the spread of knowledge among the people marks not only the consummation of a noteworthy plan for bringing within the grasp of the humblest and poorest citizen the opportunity for acquiring information on every subject of every kind, but it furnishes a model and example for other cities which have been struggling with the same problem, and points for them the true way.”
Over time, the Library became home to one of the world’s greatest humanities and social research collections, comprised of rare books, manuscripts, letters, periodicals, prints, historic records and photography, among other treasures. The materials are stored in 88 miles of underground stacks. Thousands upon thousands of writers have used the Library’s collections to create books, articles, films and other scholarly and cultural works. The Library and its triple-arched portico have also been immortalized in many popular films, including “Breakfast At Tiffany’s,” “Ghostbusters” and “Sex and the City.”
The building became a National Historic Landmark in 1965, and was named for Library Trustee Stephen A. Schwarzman in 2008 after his historic $100 million donation, continuing the long tradition of philanthropy at NYPL.
To mark the building’s Centennial, the NYPL will soon embark on a celebration entitled “Find The Future,” which centers around a Monday, May 23 rededication ceremony on the newly-restored front steps. Millions upon millions of people have found their futures, changed the world with their writings and enriched their own lives by using the collections, services and staff expertise available for free at the Library. Now, as the Library prepares to embark on its second century of service, it is a time to reflect on its past contributions to the welfare of New York and the nation, and to project its vision of future service.
Other events planned to mark the Centennial include:
- An exhibition that highlights hundreds of items from the building’s collections
- A book distributed free throughout New York City published by Penguin Classics (which is celebrating its 65th anniversary) highlighting luminaries and their favorite items from the collections
- An interactive, live-action “game” incorporating our collections and played in the building as well as online by famed game designer Jane McGonigal
- A Centennial dinner with celebrity guests that will take place in various rooms of the Schwarzman Building
- And various special Centennial adult and children’s programs