How the New York Public Library weathered a near-death experience
Recently, the New York Public Library (NYPL), one of the world’s great repositories of human knowledge, suffered a near-death experience. How this happened, and the struggle to rescue the century-old institution from its own trustees, is the subject of Scott Sherman’s sprightly Patience and Fortitude (“Patience” and “Fortitude” are the stone lions guarding the NYPL’s building on Fifth Avenue). At stake was nothing less than the future not only of this Manhattan landmark but of its vast collection of books, rare manuscripts, artifacts, and ephemera.
A journalist, Sherman writes battlefield reportage, not history calmly studied from afar, and in this slim, quick-paced volume he paints a fascinating, but often unlovely, picture of politics, people, power, and protest in today’s New York City.
The man most responsible for the NYPL, as Sherman recounts, was its first director, John Shaw Billings, who was hired in 1895 to oversee the massive structure planned for Fifth Avenue. The polymath Billings had served as a battlefield surgeon during the American Civil War but his interests and skills, honed as director of what is now called the National Library of Medicine in Washington, DC, were in what today we would call information technology.
Billings put these skills to good use as he planned the new library needed to house and order the tsunami of books and journals flowing from new high-speed printing presses. He devised a brilliant masterplan, the heart of which was a monumental, light-filled, frescoed, book-lined neo-renaissance reading room, now known as the Rose Main Reading Room.
Underlying and supporting this enormous hall was a marvel of early 20th-century engineering: seven storeys of ingeniously designed and fabricated iron and steel book stacks.
The architects John Merven Carrère and Thomas Hastings won the contract for the new library mainly because Billings and his trustees knew they could best turn his ideas into iron and stone. They were not to be disappointed. When it was completed in 1911, their Beaux Arts wonder housed more than a million books in a building that still works well a century later. Unfortunately, Carrère never lived to see his most famous building in use; he was killed in a car accident a few months before the official opening.
From the start the NYPL, funded by a combination of city and private money, frequently faced financial difficulties. Occasionally its board of trustees sold objects from its extensive collection, but in 2005 it raised eyebrows by auctioning off a much-loved painting, Asher Durand’s 1849 Kindred Spirits, bought by Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton for $35 million. The trustees claimed that the proceeds went to its endowment. Many New Yorkers protested that they were selling off the city’s patrimony.
But trouble really started in 2008 with the announcement of the Central Library Plan (CLP). This ill-conceived scheme was blessed by the then director Paul LeClerc and supported by the board of trustees: a varied group of philanthropists, bankers, real estate brokers, public intellectuals and academics, among others. The real power of the board, however, rests with the members of its executive committee, the movers and shakers of finance and real estate, who, Sherman says, hatched the CLP.
The plan, devised with the advice of national consulting firms with little experience outside the private sector and with scant public input, was to sell two branch libraries: the heavily-used Mid-Manhattan circulating library (also on Fifth Avenue) and the Science, Industry, and Business Library, built in the 1990s. With the projected proceeds from these sales, plus $150 million in capital funds pledged by the then mayor, Michael Bloomberg, the plan could reshape the NYPL, or so the trustees believed.
The cornerstone of the CLP was the construction of a new circulating library, made necessary by the sale of the popular Mid-Manhattan. This new library was to be housed in the 100,000 square foot space underneath Billings’s reading room. To make space for this, the seven storeys of stacks would be gutted, and three million of the books they shelved shipped to a remote storage facility in Princeton, New Jersey, 60 miles away.
This, the Library explained, was necessary because the stacks lacked proper climate control. It also cited a 60 per cent decrease in use of the collections (obviously the result of the digitisation of books and periodicals now available online) and the fact that only 6 per cent of the specialised books were being used in a year. Scholars and researchers, who must consult important but esoteric material that may not have been requested for decades, found these number-crunching explanations bizarre.
The commission for the circulating library was awarded to Norman Foster. His design — a cavernous, galleried hall, looking like something between a suburban shopping mall and an airport terminal — would have clashed with and dwarfed Carrère and Hastings’s beautifully calibrated, elegant spaces. Lord Foster called it “the greatest project ever”. Not to be outdone, LeClerc boasted that the CLP would create “the biggest comprehensive library in human history”. Hyperbole abounded.
In 2011, LeClerc left the NYPL for Columbia University’s Europe Global Center in Paris, to be succeeded by Tony Marx, the former president of Amherst College. Marx too defended the CLP, inexplicably claiming that it would make the Library (already freely accessible to anyone) more democratic. He called Foster’s proposed design the rather Soviet-sounding “people’s palace”, but many New Yorkers who were already protesting against these radical changes weren’t mollified.
Opposition intensified as critics, some of them spoiling for a fight against the financiers on the NYPL board of trustees, filed lawsuits. A petition was eventually signed by 3,000 people, including many writers, academics and public intellectuals.
In 2012 Ada Louise Huxtable, the Wall Street Journal’s esteemed architectural critic, published a devastating article. Early the next year, an eye-opening lecture (posted to YouTube) by Charles Warren, an expert on Carrère and Hastings, showing how the integrity of the building would be compromised by the Foster design, galvanised more protest. The early trickle of disapproval became a wave of dissent.
In November 2013, Bill de Blasio, who had previously blasted the CLP in a campaign speech on the steps of the NYPL, was elected mayor. Some of his closest advisors wrote a public letter urging him to “save the New York Public Library from its trustees’ misguided plan” that would rob the city’s smaller branch libraries and hurt students, seniors and immigrants. Seemingly de Blasio met Marx and pressured him to back down. The CLP was halted in its tracks.
In May 2014, Marx stated that the NYPL had jettisoned the CLP for financial reasons. “When the facts change,” he said, “the only right thing to do as a public-serving institution is to take a look with fresh eyes and see if there is a way to improve the plans and to stay on budget.” It’s estimated that the Foster plan would have cost at least $300 million.
Sherman’s book ends with an autopsy of the CLP and a discussion of the future of the research library in the age of digitisation. He says that the NYPL “needs government regulation”, and quotes a former NYPL director, arguing that it “deserves today federal support for its national and international role”, but exactly why taxpayers outside New York should support a municipal institution located in one of the world’s wealthiest cities is unclear.
Patience and Fortitude is a New York story, but much of what it describes is symptomatic of a larger pathology: the relationship between “starchitects” and their clients. The NYPL trustees, like many of their counterparts elsewhere, are more compliant than their forerunners who worked with John Shaw Billings. In those days trustees told architects, even the most famous of them, what they wanted and made sure it got built to their specifications and budget. Now, patrons, eager to prove their hipness, too often allow celebrity architects — such as Frank Gehry, Renzo Piano, Daniel Libeskind and Norman Foster — to tell them what they need.
The results are often acts of vandalism, such as Foster’s planned defilement of the NYPL and his grotesque remaking of the British Museum’s Round Reading Room, Libeskind’s giant glass shard stuck in the neo-classical façade of the Bundeswehr Military History Museum, Dresden, or the blighting of Charles McKim’s graceful Italianate Morgan Library, also in New York, by Renzo Piano’s steel and glass box.
That these starchitects will continue to design new buildings that are monuments to their and their votaries’ egos is regrettable, but probably inevitable. That they are paid to wreak havoc with great historic fabrics like the NYPL is inexcusable.