The Croton Distributing Reservoir was built near a field where George Washington’s army once scrambled to flee the British during the Revolution. The reservoir was critical to the growing city, providing safe water and, with the promenade on top, one of New York’s main attractions (Edgar Allan Poe recommended it to visitors as a "delightful scene at night, with the moonlight dancing on the water").
The building at the left side of the Croton Reservoir (the dirt road is 40th Street, looking west) is Croton Cottage, which stood on the corner SNFL now occupies. It operated from 1845 to 1863—before it was burned down in the Draft Riots—serving refreshments to visitors after their promenades across the street.
Left: “Croton Water Reservoir, New York City” (1850). Right: “Old country inn (Croton Cottage) cor. 5th Av. & 40th St.” (1828–1890). Images from NYPL’s Digital Collections.
William Henry Vanderbilt, son of the shipping and railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, acquired the site of the old Croton Cottage and built an Italianate brownstone mansion for his family.
William and his wife Maria Kissam Vanderbilt lived at 459 Fifth Avenue for the next 16 years, welcoming former president Ulysses S. Grant as a frequent visitor. When William died in 1885, he left the house to his son Frederick, who maintained it for 30 years. Through the years, William and Frederick acquired adjacent properties including the George Morgan house directly behind theirs on East 40th Street and the brownstone on Fifth Avenue to the south. The Vanderbilts’ carriage house was on 39th Street, which meant that their property surrounded the Union League, a private club that promoted clean government and counted as its members future presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Chester Arthur.
Left: Vanderbilt Mansion, pictured in J.F.L. Collins, Collins’ Both Sides of Fifth Avenue (1911). Right: “Going to the Opera” (1873). Painting by Seymour Guy, courtesy of the Biltmore Estate.
The obsolete Croton Reservoir was demolished to make way for the Central Building of The New York Public Library.
A Changing Neighborhood
NYPL’s new Central Building (now called the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building) was built on the site of the Croton Reservoir. It is shown here under construction in 1906, viewed from near the front of Frederick Vanderbilt’s house. With commercial development surrounding the few remaining residences in the area, the house site was leased to the oldest department store in New York—Arnold, Constable & Company—for their new flagship location.
"Exterior marble work: building seen from the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and Fortieth Street" (1906). Image from NYPL’s Digital Collections.
Joining Lord & Taylor and B. Altman in a push north, Arnold, Constable & Company built a dignified six-story limestone building on the site of the Vanderbilt Mansion, which had been demolished the previous year. (As The New York Times declared: “Wreckers Attack Vanderbilt House... much choice woodwork and marble pieces has been sold for use in country houses on Long Island.”)
Arnold, Constable & Company
Arnold, Constable & Company was a shopping mecca for New York society, and thousands attended the opening on November 8, 1915. During its six decades in the building, Arnold, Constable designed flying suits for Amelia Earhart and outfitted Eleanor Roosevelt, a devoted supporter, for all four of her husband’s inaugurations. The store also promoted American art. Here, paintings by John D. Graham are displayed, circa 1950, attended by elegantly dressed mannequins in the windows along Fifth Avenue.
Left: “5th Avenue and 40th Street. Arnold, Constable Building” (1915), Wurts Bros. Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.4824. Right: “Window display at the Arnold, Constable department store, ca. 1950.” John D. Graham papers, 1799–1988. Courtesy of the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
The store leased space for stock rooms in the newly built office tower at 10 East 40th Street that adjoined the building—space later used to house Mid-Manhattan Library during renovations in the late 1970s.
Shortly after the Arnold, Constable building was completed, there were already talk of and plans for expansion. Note how the facade of the first two floors extends to its neighbor. Additions were also made in 1937, filling out the south side of the building, seen here circa 1940. Six additional stories were also proposed—plans finally abandoned by 1957 when they settled for a remodel and the addition of escalators and an updated central air conditioning system.
“Arnold, Constable & Co., Fifth Avenue at 40th Street, New York City, New York's Oldest Department Store -- Founded 1825.” Image: Manhattan Post Card Co. Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York. F2011.33.1695.
At the same time that Arnold, Constable & Company was operating, The New York Public Library was coping with a massive spike in demand from New Yorkers for circulating materials. NYPL’s Circulating Department originally operated in the Central Building from the room now called the Celeste Bartos Forum. There was limited room for open shelves, so patrons had to call for books, stored in closed stacks.
NYPL's Struggle for Space & Shelves
The Library proposed a post-war addition of 12 floors of book stacks to be built in each courtyard of the Central Building to double storage capacity, as in this rendering of the proposed expansion by architect Aymar Embury II, a longtime collaborator of Parks Commissioner Robert Moses. That plan never came to fruition, and the solution wound up across the street.
NYPL bought the Arnold, Constable building. By 1970 several floors had opened as Mid-Manhattan Library, and, by 1976 (after Arnold, Constable fully moved out), all floors were occupied by NYPL.
As the Mid-Manhattan Library’s new chief librarian, Katherine O’Brien, and her team were unpacking in the new space in 1970, a delivery man noted, “This is no library, this is a giant cocktail lounge.” But O’Brien, who joined NYPL in 1931, loved the bright carpets and upholstered chairs that made the space inviting to students and researchers. Areas were color coded: blue for History and Social Sciences, red for Business, yellow and orange for Arts and Literature.
Giorgio Cavaglieri, the architect known for repurposing the historic building that is now NYPL’s Jefferson Market Library and converting the old Astor Library into The Public Theater, led a full renovation, replacing the old display windows with full-length windows at the street level, among other upgrades. Despite the renovation, the building retained the look and feel of a department store, with low ceilings, high shelves, escalators, and lack of sightlines and natural light.
A Workhorse During Difficult Economic Times
Mid-Manhattan Library still became a beloved beacon of education and opportunity in Midtown, averaging 1.7 million visits and 2 million items circulated each year. Amid difficult economic times in New York City, the branch had high use but no substantial renovations for decades. Renovating the branch was a priority for many years, and there were several plans considered, including placing a modern glass addition above the building. But none were realized. The branch continued to operate in a department store, with inefficient space, a lack of program and meeting rooms, aging infrastructure, and a dearth of technological capabilities, among other problems.
NYPL President Anthony W. Marx announced that Mid-Manhattan Library would undergo a complete renovation, utilizing $150 million in funding from New York City.
Plans for a New and Improved Mid-Manhattan Library
The year after the plans were announced, Dutch architect Francine Houben of Mecanoo was chosen to lead the project with Elizabeth Leber of New York City–based firm Beyer Blinder Belle. The team worked for over a year analyzing library usage data, interviewing staff, surveying the public, and meeting with community stakeholders to ensure that the new branch will best meet the needs of library patrons, and what followed was a beautiful, light-filled, inspiring central circulating library with a classic, timeless, functional design, as well as elements that speak to the building’s history and complementary relationship to the historic Stephen A. Schwarzman Building.
Rendering by Mecanoo with Beyer Blinder Belle.
Mid-Manhattan Library’s collections and services temporarily moved across the street into part of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building so construction could begin. The same year, the Library announced a landmark $55 million grant from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) for the renovation, appropriately following in the Library’s long tradition of public-private partnership to strengthen the people of New York City.
Building the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library (SNFL)
Construction on the building included the preservation of the historic exterior of the building with a gut interior renovation. Public space was created on the lower level by the installation of a space-efficient modern book-sorting machine and the consolidation of storage. Construction also called for a multi-story opening through several floors on the east side of the building to create a “Long Room,” in which the building could maintain its collection of 400,000 books while still doubling seating, creating open, airy, inspiring public library space, and creating new meeting rooms and programming spaces. Construction also included the creation of two “voids” in the first floor to bring natural light into the lower level, the creation of new windows on the 39th Street side to bring more natural light into the dramatic Long Room atrium, and the transformation of the unused roof space into a landscaped public terrace.
Construction of the completely transformed building was completed on time, though opening was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Today: Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library (SNFL)
New York is finally getting the central circulating library it deserves. The building includes 400,000 books; the only free and publicly accessible rooftop terrace in Midtown; the Thomas Yoseloff Business Center; the Pasculano Learning Center—the Library’s largest adult learning center; a new 26,000-square-foot floor of separate spaces entirely for kids and for teens; and approximately 44,000 square feet of open, general public library space, including double the previous seating, computers, shelves, and more, on the Library’s second through fourth floors, holding the majority of the library’s circulating collection for adults.
Photograph by Max Touhey