A review of The New York Public Library: The Architecture and Decoration of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building (Anniversary Edition), by Henry Hope Reed and Francis Morrone

Reading Henry Hope Reed and Francis Morrone's affectionate, sumptuous monograph on the New York Public Library reminds us once again of the celebrated art historian Geoffrey Scott's admonition that architecture is at bottom a sensory experience. Originally published in 1986, The New York Public Library has now been updated to mark the centennial of the library's opening in 1911, and augmented with color photographs by Anne Day. These are exceptionally lovely. The building has never been photographed so beautifully, or so attentively. The result successfully translates the visual richness of the library—its controlled opulence, its chromatic splendor—into literary terms, making one of those rare occasions where a great monument has been given the book it deserves.

The sensory reverie that the library induces in the authors causes them to hold up every aspect of its classical architecture for minute and loving inspection. No feature is so insignificant that it cannot be classified, sorted, and named. Any passage taken at random shows this. The scrupulous study of the handle of the door leading out of the trustees' room (a cartouche framed in pearls bearing the letters PL; leafy sprays, bound by a ribbon; a rosette in a small coffer and a boss in godroons, etc., etc.) leads to an examination of the hinges to that same door (embellished with bound reeds and a pinecone finial). It is at this point that one realizes that this is rather more than a conventional architectural monograph.

During the heyday of the Modern Movement, the middle of the last century, classical architecture had diminished to purely honorific status, a symbolic device that indicated that something was important—or aspired to be—as on the social security card, or the front grill of a Rolls Royce. But classical architecture, properly understood and imaginatively deployed, is closer in nature to music, possessing the same properties of rhythm, texture, breadth, and density, and is equally capable of endless inflection, as these elements are made to swell or slacken, or gallop to a crescendo. It was to promote the knowledge of classical architecture, and to protect America's legacy of classical buildings, that Henry Hope Reed founded Classical America in 1968. Since then Classical America has published over 30 books, including reprints of such essential reference works as James Stuart and Nicholas Revett's The Antiquities of Athens and Other Monuments of Greece (1762)—invaluable for that stalwart band of architectural idealists, the "young fogeys," who cling to classicism.

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In this same missionary spirit reed and Morrone, an architecture critic and the author of a guide to the buildings of Philadelphia, have conceived The New York Public Library. About the building's actual construction, they have surprisingly little to say, even contending, "Construction techniques need not deter us, because they are as unimportant an aspect of the New York Public Library as they are for most great buildings of the world." This will distress some readers who might like to know, for example who the building's contractors were (in fact, they were the Norcross Brothers, a firm of national significance). Instead, the book is not so much a history as an extended formal analysis, which seeks to make the library's forms comprehensible to a culture for which classicism has become a dead language. It is organized as a patient and comprehensive tour of the library, beginning with its site on Bryant Park and covering in turn its facade, portico, entrance hall, staircase, and so forth, culminating in the principal space of the building, the main reading room, with its staggering 297 by 78 foot sweep of space. From there we slowly descend by means of another stair to inspect the sides and rear of the building.

At every point the authors stress how the subtlest of manipulations—an adjustment in the height of a balustrade or in the way a slab of marble shows its grain—can have the richest of visual consequences. To make the vocabulary accessible, they have appended a portfolio of glorious detailed photographs, methodically annotated with architectural terms for readers who have trouble distinguishing a cyma recta from a cyma reversa.

If this attention paid to materials and the most exquisitely minute aspects of the decoration at times seems excessive, or even fetishistic, there's good reason for it: the building's surface ornament constituted the chief responsibility of the architects, John M. Carrère and Thomas Hastings. The book makes quite clear that the actual floor plan was worked out in detail well before the architects were appointed, and was the creation of the library's founding director John Shaw Billings, a surgeon and professor of hygiene with no formal architectural training. It was Billings who determined that the main reading room should be placed as far from the noise of Fifth Avenue as possible, and tucked it away at the back of the building. Carrère and Hastings won the commission in 1897 in large part because they dutifully followed Billings's plan. By contrast, McKim, Mead & White, architects of the successful Boston Public Library, made that fatal mistake for architectural competitors: they introduced their own ideas.

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My only regret about this otherwise gorgeous book—whose passion for its subject is so unrestrained as to border on architectural erotica—is that it scarcely touches on the remarkable triad who created the building. Billings was an American prodigy. Overwhelmed by his medical experience in the Civil War, he learned to think of health in aggregate terms, in which the saving of lives by the tens of thousands was no longer a matter of individual skill but of logistics and the efficient distribution of resources. He planned the highly progressive Johns Hopkins hospital on this basis in 1875. For him there was no essential difference in the layout of a hospital and a large well-planned library. In each case rationally organized interior space, ample ventilation, and capacious passages for moving large numbers of people were the controlling principles.

For this reason the New York Public Library is not quite the apotheosis of classicism Reed and Morrone imply. In a fully resolved classical building, the most important space of a building, the climax of its carefully wrought spatial sequences—whether an altar, throne, or merely a grand salon—is always given emphatic exterior expression. One thinks of the dome of St. Peter's, over Bernini's heroic baldachin, or the opulent cupola of the Paris Opera, marking its auditorium. The grand reading room of the New York library, by contrast, is given no architectural celebration. Carrère and Hastings trained at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris, where shaping the floor plan was the decisive act in the design of a building. It must have been vexing indeed for them to be handed a predetermined layout, however workable or rational. There is, consequently, a curious tension between Billings's modern rationalism and Carrère and Hastings's poetry of surface decoration. Yet without that tension the building would be far less interesting.

In only one respect is The New York Public Library oddly dated, and that is the slightly defensive way it champions classical architecture. Since the collapse of both the Modern Movement and the belief in its historical inevitability, there is no longer a coherent opposition to classicism. Had this book appeared a half-century ago, it would have assumed that a great library is indispensible to a great city, while apologizing for the New York Public Library's form.

Today it's the other way around. When growing numbers of college students admit frankly to doing no recreational reading whatsoever, and write their research papers by relying exclusively on online sources, it is not the Schwarzman Building's classicism that seems archaic but the notion that a library has a central civic function. Some assumptions cannot be refuted by words alone. If there is a case to be made that the public library is central to our civilization, as Reed and Morrone here demonstrate, the New York Public Library is as eloquent a physical demonstration of that centrality as we are ever likely to have.

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For Correspondence on this essay, click here.