While running for mayor last year, Bill de Blasio joined demonstrators on the steps of the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue to denounce a $300 million renovation of the marble edifice as a dramatic alteration of a “crown jewel.”
Now in City Hall with the power to stop the project, as he implored his predecessor to do, de Blasio hasn’t made a decision on the plan, said Marti Adams, his spokeswoman. The mayor kept $151 million in his preliminary budget for the remodeling, with his final spending plan due next month.
The proposal seeks to draw more people to the iconic main branch while saving more than $7 million a year by shutting down two nearby library buildings. It would consolidate their operations inside an 80,000-square-foot atrium created by ripping out a seven-level book stack, hailed as an engineering marvel in a 1911 cover story by Scientific American magazine.
Opponents trying to preserve the stacks say the Beaux Arts temple of culture will no longer be the world’s pre-eminent free research institution when about 40 percent of its 9.9 million hard-to-find volumes must be retrieved from repositories more than 50 miles away. Neighborhood activists say the money earmarked for the renovation would be better spent on the system’s 88 overused and underfunded local branches.
“We’re trying to improve a masterpiece, and none of the people involved are Michelangelos and da Vincis,” said David Levering-Lewis, a historian who researched his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of early civil rights champion W.E.B. Dubois at the library. He was paraphrasing architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable, also a Pulitzer Prize winner, who denounced the plan in the Wall Street Journal in December 2012, a month before she died.
Anthony Marx, 55, president of the library since 2011, says he’s listening to the opposition and taking into account de Blasio’s questions about the library’s future. He holds a vision, he says, of a more democratic institution welcoming more people than the current 2.4 million who use it now. About 30 percent of the current space is open to the public, he said.
“The public should have more access to this, arguably the most beautiful library building in the world, certainly the most famous,” Marx said in an interview. “We aim to massively increase our after-school programs, our English language instruction and citizenship instruction, our basic computer skills and coding classes.”
The building on the corner of 42nd Street features pink marble lions, named Patience and Fortitude by former Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, that guard its front steps. Among the building’s 14 types of marble, some originated from the same Greek quarry used to create the Parthenon.
It’s the centerpiece of a 92-branch system serving Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island, including four research facilities. The city contributed $137 million to its $270 million operating budget this year, a 16 percent reduction from five years ago.
Since 2008 the main branch has been officially named after Stephen Schwarzman, chief executive officer of Blackstone Group LP, the world’s biggest asset manager. Schwarzman, who donated $100 million, sits on the library’s board and helped raise the its endowment to more than $1 billion, more than twice as big as in 2005.
Three lawsuits have been filed against the library calling on courts to block the the plan.
Schwarzman didn’t answer e-mail and telephone requests for comment about opposition to the renovation. Neil Rudenstine, a former Harvard University president who is board chairman, said he was unavailable to discuss it.
De Blasio’s View
Adams said de Blasio, a 52-year-old Democrat, remains committed to the principles he expressed during the July rally.
The mayor “has been clear that the New York Public Library must provide the public with realistic estimates of the projected costs of any proposed renovation to insure it can be executed within budget; protect the accessibility of all of the library’s facilities and resources so that they’re available to every New Yorker; and ensure that any plan it puts forward strengthens the community branches in the NYPL system as well as its research system,” she said in an April 22 e-mail.
Charles Warren, 60, an architect and president of the Committee to Save the New York Public Library, said de Blasio should block the plan because he campaigned against economic inequality in the biggest U.S. city.
“What better illustration could there be of a library wanting to spend more than $300 million on a building in midtown Manhattan that doesn’t need it while not spending enough on branches in poor neighborhoods where it’s desperately needed?” said Warren, who co-wrote a book on John Merven Carrère and Thomas Hastings, who designed the building.
The stacks were crucial to the library’s intent and structure. They provided quick access to at least 3 million hard-to-find books, catalogs, artifacts and illustrations. They also featured 1,300 steel columns situated beneath and supporting the Rose Main Reading Room, a two-block expanse of reading desks, free-to-use computers and reference books.
Today the stacks are empty. Last year, the library removed the research collection so it could be bar-coded and listed online, and accessed more quickly by staff. About 1.2 million of the most-requested items have been arranged in a cavernous underground space below adjacent Bryant Park, protected from sunlight and equipped with air conditioning.
An additional 1.4 million are slated for storage in a level below, and 4 million are in a Princeton, New Jersey, facility. The rest are scattered among other libraries and a depository about 65 miles (105 kilometers) north of the city in Putnam County, according to library spokesman Ken Weine.
The system contains a total of 15 million books including the 6 million in its circulating branch lending libraries, and a total of 51 million items: historic oil paintings, periodicals, photographs, maps and cultural artifacts such as the stuffed animals upon which author A.A. Milne based his 1926 children’s book, “Winnie-the-Pooh.”
Weine says the library fills 86 percent of its research requests within a half-hour from the underground storage space and that most of the others are completed in two days. Some library users say removal of the books has made their research more difficult.
“It used to take 20 minutes to retrieve something from the stacks; now it can take days and sometimes the report comes back ‘lost in transit’ -- words you don’t want to hear,” said Daniel Winocour, 69, a retired librarian who comes to the reading room almost every day to search for materials about the origins of international commerce in the Bronze Age.
Marx, the library president, says the the research stack’s fire-suppression sprinklers and climate control are so inadequate that the building risked a catastrophe, and that its books were decomposing.
“If there’s a fire, it could produce heat that would melt the stacks and that would undermine the support of the building,” Marx said in an interview.
The branch across the street, called the Mid-Manhattan Library, should be sold “because it’s mechanically, physically failing,” he said. That branch is the city’s busiest lending library, attracting 1.4 million readers a year. The other building slated for sale is a less-used facility on 34st Street.
In July, de Blasio expressed concern about Marx’s assertions, writing in the letter to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, “outside critics have identified the substantial engineering challenges associated with the proposed renovation and are skeptical that the plan’s $300 million price tag wouldn’t grow much larger, potentially catastrophically so.” The former mayor is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
Marx says he’s mindful of such questions and has responded to the critics by hiring a third-party analyst, whose identity he declined to disclose, to review whether it might make more sense to upgrade the air conditioning of the stacks and renovate the buildings slated for sale. He said the plan had already been proposed when he took the post in 2011, with a salary and benefits of more than $700,000 a year.
“I inherited a plan,” he said. “There were reasons to pursue that plan, but also to examine it.”