Hail, Glorious Pile: New York’s Public Library Returns

After a three-year, $50 million restoration project, the renamed Schwarzman Building of the New York Public Library has received a spectacular facelift to bring it back to its original, brilliant white appearance. Even if you have never had the opportunity to visit the island of Manhattan, gentle reader, you are probably familiar with the library’s main building – oftentimes referred to as “The New York Public Library” even though this is simply the main branch – which sits majestically on Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street. The glorious beaux-arts building and its iconic pair of lions flanking the front steps have featured in countless major and minor films, from “42nd Street” to “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, “Ghostbusters” to “The Thomas Crown Affair”. It is as symbolic of the City of New York as The Empire State Building, the Brooklyn Bridge, or St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Construction began in 1902 and was completed in 1911, when President Taft came to dedicate the building. It was universally praised in its day and by many architectural critics now as being the most perfect example of beaux-arts architecture presently standing in the United States. When one thinks of this particular school of design in America, there is an inescapable connection made with the legendary firm of McKim, Mead, and White, the Rolls-Royce of beaux-arts architectural firms, and one could be forgiven for thinking that this masterpiece was their work.

Interestingly enough, however, the library was not designed by McKim, Mead, and White, but rather by the then-relatively unknown firm of Carrère and Hastings, an architectural partnership headed by John Merven Carrère and Thomas Hastings. The two men had met while studying at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris in the 1880s, and later both worked at McKim, Mead & White in New York. In 1885 they decided to leave the firm and go into practice together. For a number of years they built hotels and homes for wealthy clients, but it was the award of the New York Public Library commission in 1897 which catapulted them into prominence, much to the surprise of their better-known contemporaries and former employers.

As a result, Carrère and Hastings received numerous commissions for other prominent buildings across the country. Here in the Nation’s Capital, they designed Townsend House (now the home of the Cosmos Club), the Russell Senate Office Building, the Cannon House Office Building, and the Memorial Amphitheater in Arlington, where the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is located. Moreover their influence, in competition with their former employers building in the capital as well, led to the adoption for a time of the beaux-arts aesthetic as the preferred architectural style of official Washington: a trend that continued, with some variation, in the construction of many public buildings and government offices in the city up until the shift toward ho-hum variations of international style, such as the K Street Box or the so-called “brutalist” architecture of the FBI headquarters.

Due in part to the early demise of both partners, Carrère and Hastings did not last as long as McKim, Mead & White. In addition, the decided objection of Hastings himself to the construction of buildings more than six stories tall came to be viewed as old-fashioned by a sort of skyscraper fetish, which began to dominate the skylines of major American cities in the 1890’s. This trend led to Congress passing the Height of Buildings Act of 1899 for Washington – more commonly known as The Cairo Act, after the offending apartment building which was felt to rise too tall. As a result, and no doubt influenced by architects like Thomas Hastings, Washington has retained a more human scale in its buildings, even as other cities created congested caverns which look beautiful from a distance but are oppressive when in their midst.

In some ways, the Main Building was both at the height of fashion and going out of fashion at the time it was built. Indeed, it may interest the reader to know that the same year ground was broken and the cornerstone laid at the Public Library, the landmark 22-story Flatiron Building – generally considered New York’s first true skyscraper – was completed. Two years after the Library was finished, the 57-story Woolworth Building became the tallest building in the world, which it remained until 1930. Today of course, the Library is now dwarfed by surrounding office towers, an oasis of architectural permanency and solidity amidst a desert of trendy construction ephemera. With this clean-up, let us hope it will continue to welcome, instruct and inspire visitors for another century to come.

Main Entrance to the New York Public Library

>New Penn Station Finally Underway

>Although it will take a decade to complete, construction on the expansion of Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan is finally underway. The city held a groundbreaking ceremony at the James Farley Post Office yesterday, which will serve as an expansion of the important rail terminal across the street. The addition will be named for the late New York U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan – not one of my favorite people, admittedly, but an individual certainly of great importance to the history of New York.

Those who are not armchair architectural historians may not be aware that the site which now holds Penn Station (as it is more commonly referred to) and Madison Square Garden, was once home to a magnificent Beaux-Arts building. The old station was designed by the august American architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White, who built some of the most beautiful and iconic buildings in the country. The group designed Washington Arch in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village; the Boston Public Library, about which I have written previously; and the West Wing of the White House here in Washington, D.C.

The destruction of the old Penn Station in the 1960’s is generally regarded as one of the great architectural crimes of American history. Although there were efforts to stop the demolition at the time, these were not effective as the concept of historic preservation in our larger cities was still something of a foreign concept to many government officials and the general public. When a building was perceived as being out of fashion, or its functions and appearance were deteriorating, it was often thought easier to simply tear the whole thing down, rather than renovate and restore. One still sees a great deal of this mentality in images of what has happened to historic Asian cities such as Shanghai.

The reaction to what happened to Penn Station proves the old adage that sometimes one has to lose something in order to appreciate it, once it is gone. As a result, when similar rumblings were made a few years after the destruction of Penn Station to tear down the smaller but equally beautiful Grand Central Terminal, prominent New Yorkers, architects, and historians rallied to fight the demolition and redevelopment of the site. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was one of those who used her influence to great effect in this regard, and no doubt this is one reason why she was particularly beloved by the people of New York City.

It is admittedly far too easy to criticize what was built in place of Penn Station, but let’s do so anyway: where to begin? There are the oddly placed stairwells and escalators leading into and out of the station which are inconvenient and make no sense. There is the awful pebble-dash-and-concrete sort of cladding with a lack of fenestration that makes the station look like a small, liberal college sports arena in the Midwest. There are the odd angles and curves of both interior and exterior walls where one can neither sit nor rest a bag, but which attract vagrants for the purposes of relieving themselves in shadowy corners in the middle of the day.

All of it is awful, and frankly all of it should be torn down. It is the secular equivalent of what was done to many churches in the 1960’s after Vatican II, when the faithful often did more damage than any militant atheist could have, as I wrote about yesterday on my other blog. The 1910 station was built to last a thousand years; the 1964 station was built to remind us of society’s collective ignorance for at least that long.

Fortunately, the new station will be located in a beautiful and impressive building not unlike the original station, and also designed by McKim, Mead & White. Although the conversion of a building designed to function as a giant mail depot will no doubt have certain problems, I suspect that it will be far easier than dealing with a similar structure designed as a bank, for example. The post office needs to get men, trucks, and carts in and out in as efficient a manner possible; doing the same with human beings carrying wheeled luggage or baggage carts is not really much of a functional shift. And being able to arrive and depart from Midtown Manhattan once again at a beautiful meeting place will no doubt cheer the traveler in ways which the current structure utterly fails to do.

Interior of Pennsylvania Station, as it was

>The Future of Manhattan’s Skyline

>The City of New York is abuzz this morning over the impact of a proposed new building in Manhattan – and it’s not the one you are probably thinking of:

While the rest of the commentariat squabbles over Cordoba House, more popularly known as the “Ground Zero mosque”, many architects, historians, developers, business leaders, community leaders and politicians are debating the plans for 15 Penn Plaza, a proposed re-development of the old Hotel Pennsylvania site across from Penn Station at 34th Street. The new structure, designed by architects Pelli Clark Pelli (headed by César Pelli of Petronas Towers and Canary Wharf fame) is an office tower which will stand 1216 feet tall: just shy of the city’s iconic, 1250 feet tall Empire State Building, located a couple of blocks away. As one can see in the architect-rendered image reproduced below, the proposed glass wedge at 15 Penn Plaza will block views of the Empire State Building to the west.

Proponents say that the construction project will provide jobs and much-needed income to the city at a time of economic crisis – indeed, much as the construction of the Empire State Building itself did during the Great Depression. They believe that the long-term benefits to the city will include the creation of thousands of square feet of income-producing space once the building is completed, as well as alleviating numerous traffic problems as a result of the infrastructure improvements that are part and parcel of the site proposal. They also point to the fact that the skyline of Manhattan has been a constantly changing and evolving one over the centuries, rather than a static series of long-established vistas.

Detractors say that the proposed 15 Penn Plaza tower is unattractive architecturally, and hardly compares to the iconic art deco Empire State Building located only 900 feet away. Not only would the building of the tower ruin the views of Manhattan from the Empire State (a significant source of tourist income) but, they argue, a building of this size should be blocked from construction within 17 blocks of the Empire State, in order to preserve the iconic views of New York. The impact of this tower in the long-term, they feel, would detract from the impact that the Empire State has on the entire economy and culture of the city.

The Empire State Building is currently the tallest building in Manhattan, a title it originally held from its completion until the construction of the World Trade Center, and which it re-gained after 9/11; when the new, 1776-feet tall World Trade Center is finally completed it will once again “shrink”. Yet the World Trade Center is located in Lower Manhattan, not Midtown. Throughout its history, the Empire State has stood in majestic isolation in the Midtown skyline, offering sweeping views of the city from its observation decks, and serving as a kind of center post about which the rest of Manhattan appears to rotate. Its solitary splendor has inspired filmmakers, photographers, writers and artists for the past 80 years. In both versions of “King Kong” for example, the tower is the location for the climax of the film, while hip-hop artist Lauryn Hill used the visual impact of this great central tower of Manhattan to superb and clever effect in her 1998 music video for “Everything Is Everything”, with the Empire State serving as a kind of spindle for the transformation of the island of Manhattan into a giant record turntable.

In thinking about this issue I reflected on the various cries to allow the construction of tall buildings here in Washington, D.C., if not in the so-called “monumental core” around the National Mall, at the very least in other parts of the city where such buildings would not block the sight lines from the Capitol or White House. In the late 19th century, construction of the 164-feet tall Cairo apartment building here in Washington caused an uproar in Congress that led to the passage of the Heights of Buildings Act, which has kept construction of all buildings in the Federal city to below 150 feet, unless an exemption was granted for an exceptional structure. The end result is a city whose streets are marked by sunlight and trees rather than swirling clouds of dust falling from tall buildings into dark canyon-like streets and sidewalks. In many parts of the city, one can see the Washington Monument or the dome of the Capitol peeking above the rooflines, something which serves to unite much of the city visually.

When it comes to architecture, one cannot simply consider the building itself, but rather the significance of what surrounds it: there is something to be said for uniqueness. This brings us back to where we began, in a sense, with a reflection on the Córdoba mosque. However once again, the subject is not the proposed structure for Lower Manhattan, but rather the original for which it is named.

Following the re-conquest of Spain, the center of the great Mezquita (“Mosque”) of Córdoba, with its iconic horseshoe-shaped striped arches and vast forest of pillars, was replaced with a beautiful but incongruous Gothic cathedral nave. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (known in Spain as King Carlos I), gave the green light to the project in 1523 without even having visiting the site – to his later regret. When he came to see the building for the first time in 1526, he is reported to have said, “Here you have built what you or anyone might have built somewhere else, but you have destroyed something that was unique in the world.” As New York’s elected officials consider the proposed 15 Penn Plaza project, this lesson from history ought to be an important part of their consideration.

Architect’s rendering of the proposed 15 Penn Plaza tower,
shown just to the left of the Empire State Building.