A Visit to the New York City Library

by Diana Belchase

How much do you know about the NYC library? You know, that massive building on 42nd Street and 5th Avenue, adjacent to Bryant Park in midtown Manhattan?

Grand Study Hall New York Public Library
Main reading room (courtesy of Alex Proimos)

How about these facts:

  • It took 16 years of planning. The cornerstone was laid in 1902. After nine years of building, the library finally opened on May 23rd, 1911. 
  • The library was the largest building built of marble at that time in the U.S. Four acres of American marble were used. 
  • It takes up two New York City blocks
New York City Library
Before the Lions were installed (courtesy NYC Public Library)
  • The iconic Lions at the entrance were named Patience and Fortitude by Fiorello LaGuardia who thought those were the traits most needed by his constituents during the Great Depression.
Marble Lion NYC Library Fortitude
Fortitude (courtesy of OptimumPX and NYC Public Library)
  • Bryant Park, for many years, was home to New York’s Fashion week. Crammed tents housed famous designer runway shows. Before Christmas, it fills with shops and vendors. The Winter Village has 170 boutiques and an ice-skating rink. It also is home to a glass enclosed reading room. Few people know that under the park, the library extends into a massive subterranean storage center.
Bryant Park NYC
Bryant Park (courtesy of Jean-Christophe Benoist)
  • The library initially consolidated vast private collections from the John Jacob Astor, James Lenox, and Andrew Carnegie (Talk about millionaires using money well! Carnegie gave another 5.2 million to establish the general New York City library system in over 30 branches). It became a showcase for people who were moving to midtown after   Grand Central Station opened. Up until then, most people had lived downtown.
  • Hidden away from view is a modern wing on the building that is almost entirely made of glass. 
  • Samuel Tilden, the 25th Governor of NY State donated 2. 4 million to build the library which he wanted to be on par with the British Library, the Bibliotheque National and which he hoped would put to shame the Boston Public Library (a true masterpiece filled with art and murals by John Singer Sargent — I’ll be writing about this treasure soon!) However the final tab for the building construction came to 9 million dollars! That would be 239, 472,000 today. 
NYC Library Wallace Periodical Room
Imagine reading your newspapers here! (courtesy Bestbudbrian)
  • 15,000 guests attended the opening ceremony. 
  • It was built on top of the old Croton Reservoir and the foundation of the reservoir is still visible from within the building. 
  • History, Romance, Poetry, Religion, Drama and Philosophy are represented in allegorical statues above the main doors. These represented what people of that period felt were the most important subjects and what the focus of the collection should be. 
  • For a wonderful virtual tour of the library and it’s architectural details, take a look at this terrific video below:

Thanks to Bella Gavellon for bringing this video to my attention.

One thought on “A Visit to the New York City Library

  1. Thanks for sharing details on one of my favorite libraries, Diana. What a wonderful, fact-filled article. I’m thrilled to have sent inspiration for this great article your way. Happy reading!

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