New York’s Protected Libraries
This October, we published the paperback edition of Interior Landmarks: Treasures of New York, a showcase of interiors across the five boroughs that are protected by the Landmarks Conservancy.
The hardcover edition featured the iconic domes of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As you can see, our paperback edition goes for a more literary theme: The Morgan Library. In fact, five libraries make the list of protected interior landmarks: the Low Memorial Library at Columbia University, the main branch of the New York Public Library, the Ottendorfer Branch of the New York Public Library, the Gould Memorial Library, and of course the Pierpont Morgan Library. Here, authors Judith Gura and Kate Wood take us on a quick tour of three of these New York treasures.
Gould Memorial Library
Hall of Fame Terrace at Sedwick Avenue, Bronx
Interior designated a landmark in 1981
The coffered dome originally had an elaborate Tiffany glass oculus, which was covered with a white panel after it was damaged in an explosion in 1969. The current restoration of the building, now focused on structural repairs, will eventually replace it with a replica of the original. Photograph by Larry Lederman.
Unknown to many New Yorkers, this building is considered one of Stanford White’s masterpieces. Built as the centerpiece of the Bronx campus of New York University, its Pantheon-inspired form has American antecedents in Thomas Jefferson’s library at the University of Virginia (1826) and in countless civic and institutional buildings constructed after the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The grand reading room, though now playing another role for a different institution, is as imposing today as it was when completed.
The richness of the interior begins in the vestibule beyond the bronze entry doors; it features sculptured stained-glass Tiffany windows and a floor of multicolored bands of mosaic tile. A stairway with pale yellow marble walls, Portland stone sculptural accents, and a barrel-vaulted ceiling leads to the main floor landing, where doors open to reveal the eighty- foot-tall reading room rotunda. Said to have been inspired by that of the British Museum, the space combines rich materials with warm colors and extravagant details. It is encircled by sixteen thirty-foot-high columns of green Connemara marble with elaborate gilded Corinthian capitals executed by Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company. Above is a balcony with openwork metal railings that support life- size classical statues. Overhead, White used a Guastavino tile system to shape an intricately coffered, dome sixty feet in diameter with a stained-glass oculus (now covered over). Around the perimeter, mezzanines hold tiers of book- cases, and openings provide access to rooms for each department. Offices are located on the main floor, and stairways descend to the auditorium on the basement level.
Pierpont Morgan Library
225 Madison Avenue, Manhattan
Interior designated a landmark in 1982
The East Room is dominated by three tiers of wood bookcases, crowned by a coffered ceiling with eighteen lunettes painted with murals by Mowbray, drawn from examples in the Villa Farnesina. In the spandrels, he depicted zodiac symbols and Roman deities. The room contains Morgan’s collection of rare printed books and medieval manuscripts, including three Gutenberg Bibles, one of which is always on view. © The Morgan Library & Museum/ Graham S. Haber
Built for one of the most prominent figures of the Gilded Age by the leading architectural firm of its time, the Morgan Library is a superb work of architecture, and a harmonious blend of exterior and interiors. The Renaissance Revival building contains an extraordinary ensemble of rooms that have been in continuous use, meticulously cared for, since its conversion from private facility to public museum nine decades ago.
The East Room’s walls are lined with three tiers of bookcases, fronted with brass-grilled doors and densely packed with richly bound volumes. The vaulted ceiling and upper wall panels are painted with images of philosophers, Roman deities, artists, scientists, representations of the arts and sciences, and astrological signs. The paintings were done off-site; Mowbray worked for three years in his Greenwich Village studio, painting them on canvas, and finishing just in time for them to be installed in the completed building.
New acquisitions have required expansions, including a 1928 annex built on the site of Morgan’s residence and the 1988 purchase of Morgan Jr.’s 37th Street brownstone. In 1991 Voorsanger & Mills connected the three buildings with an enclosed garden court, which was replaced in 2006 in a major expansion by Renzo Piano that included a three-story glass pavilion as well as new event and exhibition areas.
New York Public Library
476 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan
Interiors designated a landmark in 1974 and 2017
A grand vaulted space, Astor Hall is at once magnificent and welcoming, with arched openings that beckon visitors further into the interior. Photograph (c) Steven Brooke Studies
The approach to the main branch of the New York Public Library (officially the Steven A. Schwarzman Building) past the celebrated lion statues and up the grand staircase into the ceremonial entrance hall, is a fitting introduction to one of the country’s greatest research institutions. Its main public spaces—Astor Hall and the McGraw Rotunda—were the first in New York to receive designation as landmark interiors.
The imposing main lobby, later named Astor Hall after John Jacob Astor, one of the institution’s chief benefactors, is a huge space, more than 70 feet long, 44 feet wide, and 34 feet high, clad in creamy white Vermont Danby marble. The three arches of the portico are supported by columns, as are the facing arches, which open into corridors on the first and second floors. The barrel-vaulted ceiling is framed in garlands and rosettes, and the floor of Siena and Hauteville marble is geometrically patterned with alternating squares and circles-in- squares. At each end of the hall, a marble stair- case with a stone balustrade leads to the upper floors; niches on the landings contain busts of the architects. The third-floor central hall, later named the McGraw Rotunda, is a grand rectangular space, with arched bays more than 17 feet high, and walnut walls carved with Corinthian pilasters above a varicolored marble base. In 1940 and 1942, prominent painter Edward Laning, under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration, painted murals depicting the history of the writ- ten word in bays in the paneled wall and on the barrel-vaulted ceiling. The procession culminates in the Rose Main Reading Room, a palatial space crowned by murals of clouds and sky framed by a profusion of classical ornament.
The Rose Reading Room and the Bill Blass Public Catalog Room were added to the library’s designated landmark interiors in 2017.
This has been an excerpt from Interior Landmarks: Treasures of New York, edited here for length. It is available now in paperback everywhere books are sold.