A Whirlwind Architectural Tour of the New York Public Library–“Hidden Details” and All

The New York Pub­lic Library opened in 1911, an age of mag­nif­i­cence in Amer­i­can city-build­ing. Eigh­teen years before that, writes archi­tect-his­to­ri­an Witold Rybczyn­s­ki, “Chicago’s Columbian Expo­si­tion pro­vid­ed a real and well-pub­li­cized demon­stra­tion of how the unruly Amer­i­can down­town could be tamed though a part­ner­ship of clas­si­cal archi­tec­ture, urban land­scap­ing, and hero­ic pub­lic art.” Mod­eled after Europe’s urban civ­i­liza­tion, the “White City” built on the ground of the Columbian Expo­si­tion inspired a gen­er­a­tion of Amer­i­can archi­tects and plan­ners includ­ing John Nolen, Fred­er­ick Law Olm­st­ed, Jr., and John Car­rère, co-design­er of the New York Pub­lic Library.

Car­rère appears in the Archi­tec­tur­al Digest tour video of the NYPL build­ing above — or at least his bust does, promi­nent­ly placed as it is on the land­ing of one of the grand stair­cas­es lead­ing up from the main entrance. The stair­cas­es are mar­ble, as is much of else; when the NYPL opened after nine years of con­struc­tion, so the tour’s nar­ra­tion informs us, it did so as the largest mar­ble-clad struc­ture in the coun­try.

On the sound­track we have not just one guide, but three: NYPL vis­i­tor vol­un­teer pro­gram man­ag­er Kei­th Glut­ting, design his­to­ri­an Judith Gura, and archi­tec­tur­al his­to­ri­an Paul Ranoga­jec. Togeth­er they tell the sto­ry of this ven­er­a­ble Amer­i­can build­ing, and also point out the “hid­den details” that a vis­i­tor might not oth­er­wise notice.

Take the ter­race on which the whole build­ing stands, a fea­ture of the Euro­pean vil­la and palace tra­di­tion. Or the murals depict­ing the his­to­ry of the writ­ten word from Moses’ stone tablets on down. Or the pneu­mat­ic tubes, arti­facts of the ana­log infor­ma­tion-tech­nol­o­gy sys­tem in use before the NYPL com­put­er­ized in the nine­teen-sev­en­ties. Or the ren­der­ing of the world in the library’s for­mi­da­ble map room that mis­tak­en­ly depicts Cal­i­for­nia as an island (not that every New York­er would dis­agree). The video also includes oth­er, even less­er-seen won­ders both old and new, from a 1455 Guten­berg Bible — the first in the New World — to the auto­mat­ed trol­ley sys­tem that brings books out of the stacks. But it is the build­ing itself that inspires won­der, its extrav­a­gant solid­i­ty and detail that hark back to a time of con­sen­sus, how­ev­er brief, that noth­ing was too good for ordi­nary peo­ple.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The New York Pub­lic Library Announces the Top 10 Checked-Out Books of All Time

Watch 52,000 Books Get­ting Reshelved at The New York Pub­lic Library in a Short, Time­lapse Film

The New York Pub­lic Library Pro­vides Free Online Access to Banned Books: Catch­er in the Rye, Stamped & More

The New York Pub­lic Library Unveils a Cut­ting-Edge Train That Deliv­ers Books

The “Weird Objects” in the New York Pub­lic Library’s Col­lec­tions: Vir­ginia Woolf’s Cane, Charles Dick­ens’ Let­ter Open­er, Walt Whitman’s Hair & More

The New York Pub­lic Library Cre­ates a List of 125 Books That They Love

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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