The hidden corners of the New York Public Library

The hidden corners of the New York Public Library

In today’s NYC, it is almost taken as granted that we will be losing well-loved and longstanding iconic institutions at an alarmingly fast rate: Yankee Stadium, Coney Island’s Astroland, CBGB, 5 Pointz, the adult cinemas of Times Square…But there are some places in this city that are just too iconic, too much of a beloved treasure, that it would be considered heresy to even suggest altering them.  The Brooklyn Bridge will never be torn down; Central Park will never be paved over; and the New York Public Library’s main branch, that 1911 Beaux-Arts masterpiece overlooking Bryant Park, will remain untouched. Except maybe not really – the NYPL proved through its recent decisions that nothing in this city is truly sacrosanct.   In 2012, the NYPL trustees announced an ambitious, and very expensive, plan to modernize the main branch and refurbish its public spaces.    The central idea of this plan was to transform the library from a research library to the city’s primary circulating branch, a plan that involved demolishing seven levels of bookshelves and shipping millions of volumes out to New Jersey. Starchitect Sir Norman Foster was hired to implement this proposal, and returned with a rather uninspired plan, something described by the New York Times as having “all the elegance and distinction of a suburban mall.” And of course, tampering with the city’s architectural heritage isn’t free. The project carried a price tag of $300 million,  much of which would be shouldered by New York’s taxpayers.   Needless to say, the whole affair was greeted with widespread protest and scorn.

The library’s flagship building was completed in 1911, just a year after the opening of the original Penn Station,  another grand, iconic Midtown building in the Beaux-Arts style. New Yorkers, regardless if they were even alive at the time,  recall in horror the 1963 demolition of Penn Station – a narrow-sighted decision that replaced one of the city’s greatest public buildings with that dank, claustrophobic cellar we are now cursed with. So, it is not surprising if people viewed the NYPL plans with trepidation and mistrust. More than any other singular location, the library  arguably symbolizes the city at it’s best: a grand institution, designed and stocked in accordance with the ideals of the cities’ greatest scholars and architects, with its doors wide open to all. Any person in the city can walk in off the street, request a free library card, and have immediate access to the  NYPL’s 50-million strong collection.

 

Thankfully, the powers that be eventually relented in the face of overwhelming public outrage  and pulled the plug on their revamping plans. (Don’t worry about Sir Norman, he still received his $9 million fee.) Thus,  the library as we know it lives to see another day. So there is no need for this post to exhort you to rush out and visit the extant NYPL while you still can. Considering the library is one of the city’s most-visited tourist destinations, there’s really no need to even remind you of its existence at all. But it is worthwhile to remind you that, despite its popularity, the library is home to some little-known nooks and crannies. Here’s a few:

 

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  • Winnie the Pooh: Like the mausoleum of Lenin lying in state, but far less creepy and much sweeter, we find a glass enclosure holding the original Winnie the Pooh, along with his friends Eeyore, Kanga, Tigger and Piglet. Donated to the NYPL in 1987 by Pooh’s publisher EP. Dutton, these were the original stuffed animals that A.A. Milne’s son Christopher Robin owned and played with, and they now take pride of place in the center of the library’s Children’s Center (except for the occasions when they are used in temporary exhibitions.) Rather than a collection of pristine, well-preserved toys, these guys are scruffy and clearly were well-used and well-loved. It is actually very touching to view this display and experience Milne’s love for his son and what inspired him to create one of the most enduring classics of children’s literature.
  • As the selfie-obsessed throngs of tourists crowd the library’s corridors and  Instagram their photos of the vintage wooden phone booths in the basement,  a dozen of the library’s specialized departments quietly provide unheralded world-class scholarly research and archiving in their cozy and well-appointed rooms. Some of these departments require scheduling an appointment in advance, others let you enter and browse anytime during library hours, but either way, you can always peek through the windows. One example of these departments is  the Berg Collection, whose collection of rare manuscripts, first editions, and correspondences comprise one of the world’s premier repository of British and American literature.The Berg has a particularly strong collection of materials related to Charles Dickens, including his original writing desk and chair. Just don’t think of sitting there – the last person who sat at Dicken’s desk was mayor Fiorello Laguardia in 1940, who, lacking Dicken’s slender frame, immediately cracked the chair’s caning.  Another example is the Dewett Wallace Periodical Room, where you can request an issue of the almost 5,000 magazines and journals from around the world that the library subscribes to. And then, perhaps most interestingly, there is the George Arents Collection.
  • George Arents CollectionIt is perhaps a bit ironic that in a city that considers smoking as socially acceptable as clipping one’s toenails on the subway the public library houses a collection wholly devoted to all things tobacco. But that’s what you’ll find in room 328, on the library’s third floor. George Arents was born into a wealthy Virginia tobacco-growing company, and, as a teenager, he obsessively began collecting literature, artwork, and anything else he could get his hands on related to tobacco and smoking. In 1943, he donated this collection to the library, as well as an endowment to allow the library to continually add to it. And now you can don your smoking jacket, and definitely not your smoking materials, and check out the world’s greatest collection of tobacciana. But don’t get too excited about the prospect of getting your nicotine-stained fingers on the Honus Wagner baseball card. During the early 20th century, cigarette packs would include baseball cards of popular contemporary players as an effective marketing tool to peddle more tobacco. And Wagner was one of them, though his distaste for having his name and likeness associated with tobacco sales led to the halt of production of his card. With only a few dozen Wagner cards in existence, they are both very rare and very valuable; recently, an Honus Wagner sold for over $2 million, the most paid for any baseball card. The library will display the card very infrequently, usually to mark special occasions (the last time was when the all-star game was played in New York), so your best bet is to settle for digitally admiring Mr. Wagner’s handsome face on the Collection’s website.
  • And finally, there is a hidden spot that is seemingly so undiscovered we are loath to publicize its existence. But I suppose the whole point of this blog is to direct you to these undiscovered spots, so of course we’ll include it. Across from the library’s main Fifth Avenue entrance  is a small theater that continuously plays a short film about the library. The film is an engrossing look at the building’s history and contents of the library’s special collections, and we highly recommend it. But it is not the film itself that we find so intriguing, rather it is the existence of the theater, situated adjacent to the perpetually crowded entranceway, yet hidden in plain sight.    The several times we have visited, there have never been more than a couple other people in the theater. And a few times, we had the whole place to ourselves.  So we end this post with a suggestion to seek out this tranquil nook, particularly if you need to escape the midtown crowds or whatever type of  horrible weather New York is currently experiencing.

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