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MAS Comments on Proposed Changes to New York Public Library Schwarzman Building

The New York Public Library Schwarzman Building on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street is one of the most important and beloved landmarks in the city. Designed by architects Carrere & Hastings and opened to the public in 1911, the Library was designated an individual New York City Landmark in 1967. Any changes to the exterior of the building must be approved by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC).

The NYPL has been an excellent steward of this monument from architectural, historic, programmatic and civic perspectives. Over the years NYPL has conducted sensitive restorations and interventions, as seen in the Rose Reading Room and new South Court project, and more recently in the 2005 restoration of the Map Division and 2011 restoration of the Schwarzman Building facades.

Current plans designed by Foster+Partners for the Library’s exterior are equally sensitive. MAS believes that great efforts have been made to carefully develop minimally intrusive updates to the Library’s landmark exterior, such that in the words of the architect, “You will not know we’ve been here.”  These alterations consist of additional rooftop mechanical equipment, a loading gate on West 40th Street, and the meticulous replacement of windows and addition of new entrances on the west façade overlooking Bryant Park.

At a public hearing on January 22, MAS submitted testimony to the LPC regarding the proposed modifications to the building façade. While finding the exterior renovations generally favorable, the testimony noted however that the most significant changes are those planned for the inside of the building. The NYPL intends to close the Mid-Manhattan Branch and the Science, Industry & Business Library (SIBL) and relocate them to Schwarzman within an existing area occupied by book stacks.

Many of the great public spaces of the Library – the Main Lobby (Astor Hall), North and South staircases, and third floor Central Hall – are interior landmarks, designated in 1974. NYPL’s proposal will not affect those spaces. The stacks area, which overlooks Bryant Park, currently serves a utilitarian purpose and is closed to the public. MAS commends the Library for listening to the public and amending its original plan, now committing to retaining 75% of the research collection on-site. But much of what is proposed for the former stacks area appears to be only at a conceptual or schematic level. MAS believes that a plan for such a dramatic renovation of the interior requires further planning and design.

Regarding the interior, MAS commented, “While it is always wonderful when a public building is opened up to a larger audience, we think that much more consideration should be given to the renovation of the stack area. MAS looks forward to the continued development and refinement of the designs for these spaces.”

At the January 22 hearing, the Landmarks Preservation Commission voted 6-2 in favor of the exterior renovations, approving the plan with modifications to interior court windows and loading dock.