FOR NEARLY A CENTURY, the main reading room at the New York Public Library has been the literary heart of a bookish city. A Beaux-Arts landmark designed by John Merven Carrere and Thomas Hastings that opened in 1911, the room exudes both civic grandeur–for a time it was the country’s largest uncolumned interior–and a warm, oaky intimacy. One feels impressed, enlightened, and uplifted here, but never over whelmed. It is also a truly public space, welcoming everyone from intellectuals to schoolchildren in a (usually) hushed harmony.
Over the years, however, the room had grown tarnished, and dusty. Nearly one quarter of the 23,000-Square foot space was obscured by an unsightly warren of microfilm readers. And the long, golden tables, with their vintage green-glass lights, had dulled with age and overuse. One of the greatest detractions from the room’s beauty came about when the magnificent windows on its north and south sides were blackened out as a precaution against World War II bombing; post-war, they remained gallingly dark to make microfilm reading easier.
Tourists now flock simply to stand and marvel at the restored reading room. Davis Brody Bond’s $15 million project has returned the space to a glory that few may remember, but none will soon forget. The focal point is the 55-foot-high ceiling, a celestial football field of plaster molded to resemble carved wood, highlighted with copper-and gold-leaf, and supported by neoclassical Caen limestone walls. Three trompe l’oeil rectangles reveal the pinkish clouds and soft blue light ofan appropriately literary rosy-fingered dawn. These atmospheric murals replace artist James Wall Finn’s originals, which were too ravaged by time to be restored or even accurately reproduced. The new ones, by Yohannes Aynalem of Evergreene Painting, are all “meant to give the impression of looking through the ceiling directly up at the sky,” says Lewis Davis, a founding partner of Davis Brody Bond.
A number of the room’s new features are, like the ceiling murals, creative interpretations rather than historic copies. For example, two new reference centers, large stations made from carved oak, and based on Carrere and Hastings’s designs, “blend so harmoniously,” says Davis, “visitors think that they’ve always been there.”
Led by Davis, the firm–feted for a previous renovation of New York University’s Center for the Humanities–faced not only the challenge of bringing back the space’s historical luster, but also that of ensuring its continued vitality with the addition of Information Age accouterments. Thus, the 22-foot tables, with their Carrere and Hastings chairs, were not only meticulously sanded and refinished, but retrofitted with electrical grommets and conduits for power and data.
The wonders of technology can hardly compete with the room’s classical elements, though. Its full floor area once again devoted to reading tables, the layers of grime removed, and lighting added to play up ceiling arches and illuminate bookshelves, the room is newly replete with light and air–a hothouse for learning, its lofty spaces open to all.
Tom Vanderbilt is a contributing editor to Interiors.
MICHAEL LEVINE I Freelance Writer and Editor
What’s your favorite part of this room? The ceiling.
How often do you come to the reading room? I come here on average three times a week.
How many hours do you spend? Anywhere from four to seven.
Do you find this room is a pretty encouraging place to work? I’ve been coming here so long, feel at home.
Is there anything you would change about this room? When you sit at those desks to write, some of the seats don’t get very good light. I was hoping they would improve that.
What’s the best thing about the restoration? The ceiling.