December 14, 2017

NYPL Unveils Plans for Schwarzman Building

Schwarzman Building new 40th Street entrance

Schwarzman Building new 40th Street entrance
Rendering by Mecanoo with Beyer Blinder Belle

At a November 15 board of trustees meeting, New York Public Library (NYPL) administration unveiled the master plan for renovations to its main branch, the Steven A. Schwarzman Building on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street in Manhattan. The work is part of NYPL’s Midtown Campus renovation, which includes the gut renovation of the Mid-Manhattan Library across Fifth Avenue, currently in progress.

These represent the second round of plans for the Schwarzman Building, undertaken after NYPL’s original Central Library Plan (CLP), first announced in 2008, was abandoned in 2014.

Work on the Schwarzman Building will begin in 2019 and finish in 2021. The building will see an approximately 20 percent increase in public space for research, exhibitions, and educational programs, mainly from repurposing former underused staff and storage spaces. In addition, an entrance, with a plaza and new elevator bank, will be constructed at 40th Street; bathrooms and heating and cooling systems will be modernized; the library shop will be moved and expanded and a new café and lounge built; a Center for Research and Learning will be built to introduce high school and university students to the library’s collections and its use as a research facility; and a new permanent, rotating exhibition of NYPL’s treasures will be developed. The library will remain open throughout all phases of construction.

“For over a century, the Schwarzman Building has been a beacon of open access to information and a tireless preservationist of the world’s knowledge,” said NYPL President Tony Marx in a statement. “We have a responsibility to preserve its architectural wonder and its role as an important civic space, while also preparing it for the future, and another century of best serving the public. We believe this plan does just that.”

PHASES II AND III

The $317 million plan represents phases II and III of a three-phase project; Phase I dates back to 2006, and included the build-out of a second level of the underground Milstein Research Stacks and the system to deliver those books to the Rose Main Reading Room.

The work that comprised Phase I was funded by $144 million from New York city and state, the largest portion of which was $50 million for cleaning the building’s façade. Phases II and III will be funded entirely through private donations. NYPL already has the $145 million to cover Phase II in hand. Phase III will run to $28 million; the library has $19 million in hand and, said NYPL chief operating officer Iris Weinshall, “we’re pretty confident that we’ll be able to raise the [remaining] $9 million, either through naming opportunities or other philanthropic gifts.”

After NPYL’s original Central Library Plan (CLP), first announced in 2008, was abandoned in 2014, the library selected the Dutch firm Mecanoo as design architects and the New York–based Beyer Blinder Belle as architects of record to move forward with a new concept for the two buildings that comprise the mid-Manhattan campus. After a year and a half spent collecting usage data and interviewing users, staff, and community stakeholders, the architects released their preliminary design for Mid-Manhattan in fall 2016 with plans to further study ideas for improvements to the Schwarzman Building.

When Mid-Manhattan closed in August in preparation for construction, its collections and staff moved into swing spaces in Schwarzman, many of which were upgraded for their temporary occupants. Although this means that much of the larger-scale structural work at Schwarzman will need to wait until Mid-Manhattan reopens in 2020, some of the Phase II infrastructure work—such as adding HVAC capacity—can begin in 2019 with these spaces still occupied.

Work on the elevators and new entrance will have to wait until Mid-Manhattan staff and materials have moved back across the avenue. “It’s going to be very noisy; it’s going to be a very complicated project,” said Weinshall. “Likewise, we’re going to renovate all 22 bathrooms in the building. That’s going to require shifting staff around” to space currently used for storage.

BUILDING A CAMPUS

Proposed Center for Reading and Learning

Proposed Center for Reading and Learning
Rendering by Mecanoo with Beyer Blinder Belle

Much of the proposed work has been planned to contribute to the interaction between the two Midtown Campus buildings—with an emphasis on the “campus” aspect. The 40th Street entrance, explained Weinshall, will allow for less congestion at the main entry and smoother foot traffic between Schwarzman and Mid-Manhattan. A series of new multi-purpose rooms in construction at Mid-Manhattan will mean that a variety of complementary programming can run at both buildings.

Gottesman Hall, which has traditionally highlighted individual treasures from the library’s collections, will now become a full exhibit hall displaying a combination of permanent and rotating items. The area facing Gottesman Hall, which currently houses the museum gift shop, will be repurposed as additional gallery space. (The library shop will be relocated to the Celeste Bartos exhibition space currently in the south court of the building.) Declan Kiely—formerly the Morgan Library and Museum’s Robert H. Taylor Curator and head of the Morgan’s Department of Literary and Historical Manuscripts—joined NYPL in September as director of exhibitions, and will be responsible for much of the exhibit programming.

One of the major factors in the selection of Beyer Blinder Belle, noted Weinshall, is that the firm has extensive experience working with the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC). The exterior of the Beaux-Arts Schwarzman Building was designated a New York City Landmark in 1967 (as well as being declared a National Historic Landmark in 1965 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1966); inside the building, the grand Astor Hall and McGraw Rotunda were designated as landmarks in 1974, and the Rose Main Reading Room and Bill Blass Catalog Room in 2017. This means that any work performed in these spaces must receive a permit from LPC, which involves filing detailed applications.

However, Weinshall said, the only approval needed for this project will be for the new 40th Street entrance, which will involve the relatively straightforward repurposing of an existing window as a door. “We’ve already had informal conversations with Landmarks and they were pretty positively inclined,” she told LJ, adding that Beyer Blinder Belle “has just been terrific in terms of guiding us through this process. [And] Mecanoo has been creative and inclusive. They’re two very good firms.”

CONSIDERING THE STACKS

One aspect of the Master Plan that has not yet been addressed involves the building’s seven floors of central stacks. Currently, they house the Mid-Manhattan Library’s circulating books. But once construction is complete at Mid-Manhattan, the 175,000 square feet of space will be freed up to play a new role; the stacks have been deemed unfit for the research materials they once held, as the space lets in too much natural light and does not meet modern standards for temperature, humidity, or fire safety. However, they are structural support elements of the building and so cannot be removed entirely.

The initial CLP called for the space to be rebuilt with modern facilities, with the books they held relocated to an off-site storage facility. Public outcry at the idea of the research collection’s move—along with the economic downturn of 2008—helped sink the first CLP, so now much of the collection is currently held in the underground Milstein stacks, with some at NYPL’s shared ReCAP storage facility in New Jersey.

The library is now exploring new options for the space. Much of the analysis done for the CLP is still usable, Weinshall told LJ, and will be supplemented by further study. In addition to a study by the project architects, she said, “We’re going to be putting together a panel of some experts—thinkers, urbanists, other architects—to imagine what if. What if you had 175,000 square feet in Midtown Manhattan, what could the space could be used for?”

The architects have already begun talking to library staff, and NYPL will be reaching out to more stakeholders. Weinshall predicts the process, which will also involve public meetings and input, will take nine to 12 months. “We’re not presupposing anything, nor are we going to present a fait accompli to the public,” she noted. “We’ll probably end up presenting a number of options.”

Added Weinshall, “We want as many suggestions as possible, because the sky’s the limit.”

A video about the renovation can be viewed below.

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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