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Look! Books! The Tired Old Mid-Manhattan Library Gets a Crisp New Identity

Photo: Max Touhey/Courtesy NYPL

For half a century, New Yorkers in need of a semi-current guidebook to Tokyo, bibliographical sources for a high-school paper, or a copy of Moby-Dick got on the subway and headed for the Mid-Manhattan branch, the heart of the New York Public Library’s circulating system. Located in a converted Fifth Avenue department store across the street from the glorious Central Research Library, the place was crammed with looming shelves and kept habitable by a ventilation system that didn’t so much move air as prod it every once in a while. This collection of awkward spaces was the sort of facility “where New Yorkers unbathed, unhinged, or just perennially unoccupied spend hours staring at the same page of a prop book or manically writing on wrinkled yellow notepads,” wrote Ada Calhoun in The New Yorker. A decade ago, it seemed doomed, too valuable as real estate to survive as a public service. A plan was hatched to jam a massive circulating library into the main branch (now the Schwarzman Building). That idea foundered, and the Mid-Manhattan endured. After three years of closure and a $200 million overhaul, it has now been returned to the people with a new name — the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library — and a new look, but the same multi-pronged mission.

Maybe the greatest compliment I can pay the architecture is that it hardly registers as architecture at all. Libraries have often been civic monuments, showcases of design virtuosity, and temples that appear to be made out of volumes. At times, the grandiosity turns into caricature. The Binhai Library in Tianjin, China, which in widely circulated photos appeared to be so extravagantly book-lined that you’d need a cherry picker to browse, turned out to be papered with pictures of books. But glance at the Mid-Manhattan — sorry, the Stavros Niarchos — from across the street, and you might not notice a change. The building, commissioned by the Arnold Constable department store, dates from 1915, just a few years after the main library. Sturdy windows, a good cleaning, and new copper-green headgear were all that was needed to restore its dignity.

The interior is another story. The Dutch firm Mecanoo and the renovation experts at Beyer Blinder Belle hollowed the shabby building out and reassembled a brightly lit indoor campus to serve a cross-section of the public. There are spaces and staff to help record music, file taxes, learn English, struggle with paperwork — to make the whole maddening business of being a New Yorker a little easier. Readers are welcomed like dignitaries, with a long red runner that leads past an honor guard of dark-clad columns to the information desk. Delaying that first interaction with a human being is strategic; it’s a way of signaling that most people know what they’re doing there and those who don’t won’t be sized up, or rebuffed, at the door. (The restrooms are clearly marked, and that’s usually the first question, anyway.) Immediately, you have choices, not confusion. In what was once the main storefront vitrine at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 40th Street, movable armchairs cluster beneath a circular chandelier. A handsome staircase near the entrance leads downstairs to what was once a creepy cellar and is now the teen zone and children’s center — which is to say, the incubator of lifelong readers and library patrons.

During the past year and a half, students of all ages have been locked out of schools, after-school programs, and libraries, the whole infrastructure of socialization, for which Zoom is no adequate substitute. So it’s good to see a public room designed specifically for kids. There’s a basement recording studio for teens, complete with loaner guitars and a mixing console in the control booth. A young children’s area has quiet corners for when it all gets to be a little much, a giraffe standing guard with its head nearly bumping the ceiling, and a picture window next to the book return slot. Drop in a book, and you can watch it travel like airport luggage along a conveyor belt and into the hands of a staffer who checks it in for re-shelving. That view is a small but telling gesture, reminding children that a library is a machine for learning, and reassuring them that it will be there for the rest of their lives.

Photo: John Bartelstone/Courtesy NYPL

Upstairs, the architects have scattered less whimsical but equally thoughtful touches. A brightly colored artwork on the ceiling, Hayal Pozanti’s Instant Paradise, winks at the fluffy clouds on the ceiling of the Schwarzman Building’s Rose Reading Room. The columns that hold up the ceiling also support long tables, making their bulk seem less obtrusive and freeing up legroom at the same time. Counters run beneath the windowsills, so readers can keep one eye on the avenue. The rooftop, once monopolized by wheezing machinery, now has an outdoor café — is there any human endeavor that isn’t improved by the availability of coffee? — with a fine view onto the library mothership across Fifth Avenue. The mechanicals are stashed away under the project’s sole stroke of fancy, a sheet-metal Robin Hood cap whose brim canopies the café tables and a tall crown that echoes the Beaux-Arts fashion for mansards.

Photo: Max Touhey/Courtesy NYPL

The masterstroke, though, was to turn the library’s old appendage into its new heart. The back of the building sprouts a tail that stretches alongside a pocket park. Originally, this narrow, windowless recess was fit only for bathrooms. By slicing out chunks of the second and third floors and punching new windows in the exterior wall, the architects created a light-filled atrium flanked by five new levels of open stacks for 400,000 volumes. The primacy of books shouldn’t be taken for granted. When the other crucial midtown branch, the Donnell Library, was demolished in 2008, it reopened eight years later in shrunken form, much of its shelving swapped out for a set of bleachers. Mecanoo and BBB’s design, on the other hand, expresses empathy for users who come not to be awed or distracted but to focus on the worlds contained between cardboard covers. Mecanoo’s founding partner Francine Houben invokes as a model the 18th-century Long Room at Trinity College, Dublin, later remodeled into a barrel-vaulted basilica of books. Scholarly grandeur isn’t the goal here, though — accessibility, durability, and flexibility are. In the Schwarzman Building, the stacks, which have always been off-limits to the public, hold up the whole structure, an ingenious feat of engineering that became a problem when the volumes started to molder and the shelves had to be emptied. In the reborn Niarchos, books have a home in plain view and within reach — which might seem like an obvious requirement for a public library but is actually a statement of faith in a technology that has regularly been declared obsolete.

Photo: Max Touhey/Courtesy NYPL
Look! Books! The Tired Old Mid-Manhattan Library Gets a Redo