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Columbia University Digital Knowledge Ventures The Architecture and Development of New York City with Andrew S. Dolkart
image The Public Realm Expansion of the Public Realm
The New York Public Library
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Expansion of the Public Realm
The New York Public Library
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Probably the greatest Beaux-Arts building, and these are referred to as Beaux-Arts–style buildings, probably the greatest Beaux-Arts building in America is the New York Public Library. I would stand this building up against any great Beaux-Arts monument in France.

The New York Public Library was one of the greatest civic ventures in New York. New Yorkers wanted a great library, a library of international status that would reflect very well on the civic virtues of New York.

But New York didn't have a great library. New York had a few libraries that were privately owned that the public could go into during limited hours—the Astor Library, which is now the Public Theater on Lafayette Street, the Lenox Library, which stood where the Frick Museum now stands.

In the 1890s the Astor Library and the Lenox Library merged together with money that was left by Samuel Tilden, a railroad lawyer and politician. In his will he left his fortune to the creation of a public library.

And so in the 1890s the New York Public Library was founded, and the city gave it one of the most prominent sites in New York, the site of the distributing reservoir on Fifth Avenue between Fortieth and Forty-second streets. The reservoir was no longer needed, because most of the population had moved farther north, and so this becomes the site for the new library.

And it's one of those rare sites in New York where you actually have a street vista. Forty-first Street—as you're moving west along Forty-first Street—it dead ends on Fifth Avenue right at the center of what's now the entrance to the New York Public Library. So like the Opéra, you could have a building that fit into the city with a great vista.

The library was established and it had a relatively small collection. But there was tremendous optimism in New York that although New York did not have a great library it could someday have a great library. So the idea was to build a huge building that could house a great library. A competition was held for the library, and it was won by the relatively young architectural firm of Carrère and Hastings.

Both Carrère and Hastings had studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and they were very familiar with French architectural ideas. And they took the ideas of the Opéra and other public buildings and adapted them for New York to create this great masterpiece.

The building extends over two full blocks. It's built out of marble from Vermont, and what's interesting about it is that it's a grand and imposing building, a building that was to reflect on the greatness of New York and the greatness of this library, or at least what they expected would be a great library. But it's also a public library; it is also a library that was planned to welcome the public. In fact, it is the only public library to this day, of all the great libraries of the world, it is the only library where anybody can walk right in and ask for a book without having to apply for permission to use the library.


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