The New York Public Library

The New York Public Library

The New York Public Library in 1914.
Courtesy Library of Congress

An excerpt from The New York Public Library: The Architecture of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building (W.W. Norton & Company) by Henry Hope Reed and Francis Morrone. Photograph by Anne Day.

What is the classical? One definition, based on that of the artist Pierce Rice, is the generalized and idealized interpretation of nature begun by the Greeks and the Romans and continued in the Renaissance. The Renaissance that began in Italy in the fifteenth century spread the classical throughout Europe and across the Atlantic. The classical took root in American soil in the colonial era and, following the vagaries of eclectic nineteenth-century taste, attained a climax in the early twentieth century, when America produced one of the great flowerings of classical architecture and decoration in the history of Western civilization.


A portion of the wall and ceiling of the
Rose Main Reading Room. [+ Click to enlarge.]
Courtesy W.W. Norton & Company

Central to the Western tradition is the importance given the human figure. In the art of no other civilization does it have the chief role that it does in the art of the West, Pierce Rice in his Man as Hero: The Human Figure in Western Art has pointed out that the archetype of the idealized and generalized part of the human body is the Greek female profile, an ever-recurring image, even in our own time. The treatment of the classical figure is seen in the outline of the profile applied to the whole body. In this way, says Rice, “we are offered…a kind of synthesized view of nature. The continuity of the arm is emphasized, not its interruption by elbow and wrist…. The limbs and heads themselves are subordinated to the unity of the body itself.” The result is “the ennoblement of the human figure.”

More than any of the human figures, the baby, according to Rice, symbolizes the art of the West. It is wonderful to see this figure, even the baby with wings—the cherub—which is so much a part of the decoration of the Library. There are, in addition, any number of winged figures and a variety of masks. All this ornament, like the detail of the towers of classical skyscrapers, goes unnoticed.

The generalized and idealized treatment extends to an array of beasts, real and mythical. The classical artist draws on the animal kingdom as often as he draws on the human, if not more so. The visitor can go about the building, counting lion masks, lion paws, dolphins, and variations on the eagle and the griffon.

Inside the semidome of the canopy of the Bryant Monument (left) and the lever handle of the door of the Trustees’ Room (right).

If that is insufficient, flora abounds. Here the great generalized and idealized form is that of the common Mediterranean plants, Acanthus mollis and Acanthus spinosus, commonly known as Bear’s Britches. It has been a source of classical enrichment for centuries, one that achieves its most splendid shape in the Corinthian and Composite capitals. For this reason, it is almost as symbolic of the tradition as the cherub. For some architects, such as John Barrington Bayley, the acanthus is the morphological symbol of Western civilization, much as the chrysanthemum is that of the Japanese or the lotus that of the ancient Egyptians.

The enrichment is hardly confined to the acanthus. Some of the more common decorative motifs are the egg-and-dart, the leaf-and-dart, pearls, and bead-and-reel. And there are the several plain treatments of surfaces in the form of moldings with such names as cyma recta, cyma reversa, ovolo, and cavetto….

John Merven Carrère and Thomas Hastings gathered this heritage as they went about designing the Library. It was not enough that the building had to stand up, that it had to serve as a giant warehouse for printed matter, manuscripts, and incunabula, and that it had to meet the needs of a large reading public. The building had to be a monument, a triumphant adornment to the city, the people’s palace to assuage the visual hunger of local pride.