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.