The New York Public Library opened in 1911, an age of magnificence in American city-building. Eighteen years before that, writes architect-historian Witold Rybczynski, “Chicago’s Columbian Exposition provided a real and well-publicized demonstration of how the unruly American downtown could be tamed though a partnership of classical architecture, urban landscaping, and heroic public art.” Modeled after Europe’s urban civilization, the “White City” built on the ground of the Columbian Exposition inspired a generation of American architects and planners including John Nolen, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., and John Carrère, co-designer of the New York Public Library.
Carrère appears in the Architectural Digest tour video of the NYPL building above — or at least his bust does, prominently placed as it is on the landing of one of the grand staircases leading up from the main entrance. The staircases are marble, as is much of else; when the NYPL opened after nine years of construction, so the tour’s narration informs us, it did so as the largest marble-clad structure in the country.
On the soundtrack we have not just one guide, but three: NYPL visitor volunteer program manager Keith Glutting, design historian Judith Gura, and architectural historian Paul Ranogajec. Together they tell the story of this venerable American building, and also point out the “hidden details” that a visitor might not otherwise notice.
Take the terrace on which the whole building stands, a feature of the European villa and palace tradition. Or the murals depicting the history of the written word from Moses’ stone tablets on down. Or the pneumatic tubes, artifacts of the analog information-technology system in use before the NYPL computerized in the nineteen-seventies. Or the rendering of the world in the library’s formidable map room that mistakenly depicts California as an island (not that every New Yorker would disagree). The video also includes other, even lesser-seen wonders both old and new, from a 1455 Gutenberg Bible — the first in the New World — to the automated trolley system that brings books out of the stacks. But it is the building itself that inspires wonder, its extravagant solidity and detail that hark back to a time of consensus, however brief, that nothing was too good for ordinary people.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.