Day Away

May 23, 2009

New York Public Library remains relevant

if you go

New York Public Library Humanities and Social Sciences Library, Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. Phone: (212) 930-0830.

New York City certainly isn't the place to prove that the best things in life are free.

But one important resource there never levies any charge.

And it turns out to be a great tourist stop, too.


Not unexpectedly, the nation's largest city had a head start when municipalities began building libraries around the turn of the 20th century. Collections from the Astor and Lenox libraries joined contributions from the Tilden Trust to start the New York Public Library.

The site chosen was Croton Reservoir, then the city's water supply. A wide promenade surrounded the 50-foot-high reservoir, built when 42nd Street was well north of the city limits. Tearing the complex down took 500 men about two years. Pictures of the process are displayed on the library's second floor.

Architects Carrere and Hastings won a competition to design the building. Scholar John Shaw Billings was chosen as director. The library opened in 1911, the culmination of a 10-year building project.

Though officially known as the Humanities and Social Sciences Library, one of 89 units in the New York system, this Fifth Avenue gem is generally known as the "main branch." A 12-minute video describes the facility, but it's far better to join one of the daily guided tours that begin in Astor Hall.

Architecturally, the building makes quite a statement, eliciting both awe and respect. One climbs a staircase between stone lions that guard the entrance then enters one of the world's premier repositories of knowledge. The Beaux Arts design features 4-foot-thick masonry walls veneered with another foot of Vermont marble.

The Dewitt Wallace Periodical Room, which holds 11,000 periodicals, was named for Dewitt and Lila Wallace who came here to condense articles for their pioneering Reader's Digest magazine. One assumes they enjoyed the sumptuous furnishings, all designed by the architects. The impressive ceiling is made of plaster but stained to simulate wood. Murals atop the walls depict major newspapers and book publishers.

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