Taming the NYPL’s Lions

According to librarian Rodney Phillips, the most frequently asked question at the New York Public Library is, “Where are the books?”

Patrons already intimidated by the Beaux Arts building and its stone lions can’t always figure out how to use this public service when all of its offerings are kept in stacks behind closed doors. Is this any way for a public institution to behave?

Library president Paul LeClerc didn’t think so. That’s why the NYPL, on his watch, has constructed an addition, South Court, to house new services such as research classes and orientations to familiarize New Yorkers with their library, how it works, and what it has to offer.

The second most frequent question at 5th Avenue and 42nd Street these days might be, “An addition to the main library? But where?” The answer, conceived by LeClerc and architect Lewis Davis, of Davis Brody Bond, was to set a new structure inside the building’s south courtyard, which has been all but invisible to the public for decades. Once an outdoor space for readings and receptions, the courtyard—surrounded by library offices and stacks—served as a parking lot and loading dock from 1950 until 1999, when construction on the new South Court building began.

A four-story structure of steel and glass, the addition is decidedly new without detracting from or competing with the existing building, a 1911 landmark designed by Carrere and Hastings. With a glass roof enclosing the space, the courtyard’s exterior facades—ornamented with elaborately carved stone—become the interior walls of the new building. The new floors stop short of the walls, so light streams down to all levels, and visitors and employees can admire the stone ornamentation from new angles.

The lower level, which houses an auditorium, is below ground: its walls are the foundation of the library, built from the stones of the Croton Reservoir, which occupied the site before the library. The first floor has wired classrooms and a small theater, the second and third floors are offices for humanities and social sciences staff, and the top floor is an employee lounge to rival any executive penthouse: a glass jewel box casually arrayed in Eileen Gray and Eero Saarinen chairs.

The problem of modern additions to landmark buildings has been solved more and more gracefully in recent years. Glass additions at the Reichstag in Berlin and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London rest lightly against their more imposing host buildings and borrow from their architectural details by simply showing them off instead of attempting to replicate them.

At the NYPL, the glass serves another function as well. “Previously, the architecture of libraries reflected stability,” LeClerc said at a recent press conference. The purpose of the building, he explained, was to state the library’s cultural importance—and to impress. “Now libraries are much more transparent,” he added, referring to increased access to information via electronic databases and the Web.

“The new architecture reflects a new purpose.” South Court even gives patrons a glimpse of the books themselves—through narrow windows that look in on the sacrosanct stacks.

Classes on everything from map reading to using census data for genealogical research will bring the symbolism of the new building to life. The first thing greeting visitors to the new building is a plasma screen flashing images from the library’s collection: maps, comics, illuminated manuscripts. It’s a window into what the library holds, and a good metaphor for what LeClerc and his staff hope the addition will do. As Phillips puts it, “Maybe the lions will be a little less intimidating now.”

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