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A Luminous NYPL Reading Room Reopens After a Two-Year Restoration

The central space of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building had been closed for repairs after one of the plaster rosettes on its ceiling plummeted to the ground in May 2014.

Rose Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library
Rose Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

“We had a little rosette problem,” New York Public Library (NYPL) President Tony Marx explained at today’s ribbon-cutting ceremony for the reopening of the Rose Main Reading Room. The central space of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street in Manhattan had been closed for restoration and repairs after one of the plaster rosettes on its sprawling ceiling plummeted to the ground late one night in May 2014. “We needed to make sure, first and foremost, that everyone is safe,” Marx said. “We checked and reinforced every square inch.”

After two years of such meticulous attention to the space — which opened in 1911, at the same time as the rest of the main branch of the NYPL — the Rose Main Reading Room began welcoming the public again this morning. Its long tables adorned with evenly spaced lamps were soon populated by researchers, writers, and others who have used the room daily over the decades.  “At a moment when we live too much in gated communities, the library is one place we all gather together,” Marx said.

Rose Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library
Poet Elizabeth Alexander speaking at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the reopened Rose Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library

The Rose Main Reading Room stretches over a space equal to two city blocks, with a 52-foot-high ceiling. Now reopened, it acts as a portal to the massive trove of volumes in the library. The new Milstein Research Stacks below Bryant Park support a capacity of 4.3 million books, which means many research requests can be fulfilled almost immediately on-site, with tomes arriving at the center of the Reading Room on the brand new “book train” conveyor system. All the remarks at the Reading Room ceremony emphasized the books just as much as the community space — an important message after the dropping of a proposed, controversial renovation that would have favored a tech-heavy user experience and spaces out of sync with the historic aesthetic of the building.

Rose Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library
The fallen rosette alongside a stress-tested rosette in the exhibition ‘Preserving a Masterpiece: From Soaring Ceilings to Subterranean Storage’
Rose Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library
Rosettes on the ceiling of the Rose Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library

The $12 million restoration included securing 900 plaster elements on the ceiling with steel cables (invisible to visitors below). And until it closes this Sunday, October 9, you can see the fateful fallen rosette in the nearby exhibition Preserving a Masterpiece: From Soaring Ceilings to Subterranean Storage. Along with the Reading Room, the adjacent Bill Blass Public Catalog Room also reopened today. Its cloudy ceiling mural now mirrors those of the Reading Room, thanks to a re-creation of the original by EverGreene Architectural Arts; the original mural by James Wall Finn was deemed beyond repair due to decades of decay and bad overpainting. In both rooms, the murals are illuminated by chandeliers newly fitted with LED lights, improvements that still adhere to the 1911 intentions of  architects John Merven Carrère and Thomas Hastings.

The Reading Room is definitely a favorite tourist photo stop (no flash, please), but it’s also a hub of local life. From such famous authors as Elizabeth Bishop and Norman Mailer writing by the light of its arched windows to students working on school assignments, to people just reading good books, many New Yorkers have an attachment to the space. (I sat at one of the tables and filled out at least 100 job applications there when I first moved to the city, encouraged by the stately atmosphere and luminous details.) Just before the ribbon was cut today and the doors opened, poet Elizabeth Alexander read a couple of poems, including Edward Hirsch’s “Branch Library,” which manifests nostalgia for “the old branch library.” It seemed a fitting text for all the people who have spent time among words and history in the Reading Rom: “I’d give anything to find that birdy boy again / bursting out into the dusky blue afternoon / with his satchel of scrawls and scribbles, / radiating heat, singing with joy.”

Rose Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library
Ceiling of the Rose Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library
Rose Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library
Rose Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library
Rose Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library
Re-creation of the James Wall Finn mural in the Bill Blass Public Catalog Room by EverGreen Architectural Arts
Rose Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library
Re-creation of the James Wall Finn mural in the Bill Blass Public Catalog Room by EverGreen Architectural Arts
Rose Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library
Rose Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library
Rose Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library
View to the Rose Main Reading Room from the Bill Blass Public Catalog Room
Rose Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library
Rose Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library
Rose Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library
Rose Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library
Rose Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library
Detail of the ceiling in the Rose Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library
Rose Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library
Rose Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library
Rose Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library
Rose Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library
Rose Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library
Rose Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library
Rose Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library
Rose Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library
Rose Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library
Outside the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue, with a banner for the reopening of the Rose Main Reading Room

The Rose Main Reading Room is now open at the New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street (Midtown, Manhattan). 

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