Long overshadowed—architecturally speaking—by its Beaux-Arts big sister located just across the way, New York Public Library (NYPL)’s largest circulating branch, the former Mid-Manhattan Library, is now ready to show of its $200 million renovation headed by Francine Houben of Dutch firm Mecanoo and New York’s own Beyer Blinder Belle. Today’s ribbon-cutting and grand public opening of the revamped library, now the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library (SNFL), comes just weeks after Brooklyn Public Library’s Central Branch fully reopened to the public following a similarly transformative interior refresh.
The highly anticipated opening of the SNFL is part of a larger overhaul of the NYPL’s Midtown Manhattan campus meant to better unify the iconic, Carrère and Hastings-designed Main Branch, formally known as the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building since 2008, with its neighboring circulating library. The SNFL is located catty-corner from the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building at Fifth Avenue and 40th Street in a 1915 mid-rise building that was once home to the Arnold Constable & Company department store but has been occupied by the NYPL since the early 1970s. Initially, the NYPL only populated a couple of floors within the eight-story building but by the late ’70s had taken over the building in its entirety in order to accommodate the system’s growing circulating collection previously housed at the Main Branch.
As noted by the NYPL, while the 106-year-old building has served the public well over the decades as the largest circulating branch, it always felt a touch ad hoc—like a library housed in a building that was never intended to be a library. The NYPL is confident that this is no longer the case following the sweeping overhaul executed by Mecanoo and Beyer Blinder Belle.
“The public was always attached to the Mid-Manhattan Library, even though over the years it had become a tired space,” said Elizabeth Leber, managing partner at Beyer Blinder Belle, in a statement. “The building had good bones and stood the test of time for more than 100 years, but it hadn’t been renovated since 1978, and there were challenges making it feel welcoming and manageable. The comprehensive renovation will allow the building to serve New Yorkers well for another hundred years. And it’s deeply meaningful to us to give the building new life rather than tear it down. More than 75 percent of the structure and envelope was retained. As preservationists, architects, and champions of New York City and public libraries, we couldn’t support NYPL’s decision to invest in the building more.”
A 2014 scheme known as the Central Library Plan that would have seen the NYPL completely shutter the outdated Mid-Manhattan Library and transform the Main Branch into a new circulating library was ultimately scuttled due to intense criticism. Later that same year, a new plan centered around major renovations of both the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building and the aging Mid-Manhattan Library was announced. Mecanoo—no stranger to high-profile library renovation projects—was subsequently tapped as design architect for the Mid-Manhattan Library overhaul with Beyer Blinder Belle overseeing the historic preservation aspects and serving as the architect of record. The SNFL’s namesake benefactor, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, bestowed the NYPL with a $55 million grant, the second largest individual gift in NYPL history, to rehabilitate and reimagine the old circulating library. New York City allocated $150 million for the project. Construction work began in 2017.
Per a press announcement provided by the NYPL, key elements of the 180,000-square-foot library include:
- Overall capacity for 400,000 books and other browsable materials. As mentioned, the SNFL is the largest circulating branch of the NYPL, which operates in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island. The renovation yielded 20,000-square-feet of additional space while doubling the amount of seating available to the public. In total, the SNFL boasts approximately 44,000-square-feet of open library space spread across the second through fourth floors, where most of the adult circulating collection is held.
- A free and publicly accessible rooftop terrace designed by MNLA that, as pointed out by the NYPL, is the only of its kind in Midtown Manhattan. The rooftop is also home to an architectural feature dubbed The Wizard’s Hat, a sculptural perforated metal structure with a copper-green hue that nods to its Beaux-Arts neighbors and houses the building’s mechanical systems including the cooling tower. In addition to the L-shaped terrace and Wizard’s Hat, the rooftop also features an indoor cafe and a “secret garden” space for children’s storytime and other intimate library programs.
- A soaring new space dubbed the Long Room that serves as the “most significant architectural intervention in the transformed branch,” according to the NYPL. Fronting a 42-foot-high central atrium, the space features five levels of open, browsable book stacks along with two connected floors of classrooms, education and programming spaces, meeting rooms, and more. Per the NYPL, the Long Room was Houben’s “innovative solution to the issue of holding hundreds of thousands of books and other materials while also offering inspiring, open, light-filled space full of seating.”
- The 21,000-square-foot Thomas Yoseloff Business Center, which occupies an entire floor of the SNFL and provides an array of services along with print and electronic resources.
- A new lower-level area spanning 26,000-square-feet dedicated entirely to children and young adults, a feature absent in the old Mid-Manhattan Library. Located in a storage area once closed off to the public, the kids- and teens-centric floor features computers, books, podcasting studios, quiet reading nooks, programming spaces, and more.
- The 20,000-square-foot Pasculano Learning Center, an adult learning center featuring technology training, ESOL and citizenship classes, and more.
- A wealth of public art is spread throughout the building, including commissions from artists such as Melinda Beck and Hayal Pozanti. Maine-based Thos. Moser also fabricated roughly 200 special “branch chairs” from Pennsylvania white oak that were influenced by the chairs designed by Carrère and Hastings for—and still in use at—the Main Branch.
In addition to reimagining old spaces and creating new ones, the Mecanoo-and Beyer Blinder Belle-led team also cleaned and restored the building’s historic limestone facade and executed a series of behind-the-scenes upgrades to help dramatically reign in the facility’s environmental footprint. This included installing high-efficiency mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems. All floors of the library are also now fully ADA compliant.
“Libraries are incredibly unique spaces, houses of knowledge and creation that must inspire, welcome, and serve all,” said Houben. “They are the most democratic, important public spaces, each one serving a specific community, each one needing to be strong to cope with the number of people who visit every day. In this case, we were entrusted with a historic building in New York City, one that receives millions of visits every year but was never built to be a library. We needed to take the bones of that building and reimagine the ultimate library: certainly beautiful and filled with light, but above all able to meet the ever-changing needs of the institution and the New Yorkers it serves.”
Most of the SNFL is now open to the public for timed browsing and by-appointment computer use as part of the NYPL’s phased COVID reopening plan. Although officially debuting today, the project was completed on time and on budget ahead of a planned May 2020 opening. Timed to coincide with the 125th anniversary of the NYPL, that opening was, of course, pushed back due to the pandemic although the building’s first floor partially opened to the public last July for grab-and-go book checkout services.
Public programming remains on pause at the SNFL and some areas/resources of the library, including the rooftop terrace and Pasculano Learning Center, are closed to the public until further notice.