February 17, 2018

Stavros Niarchos Foundation Gives $55 Million Toward Mid-Manhattan Library Renovation

Rendering of future Long Room at Mid-Manhattan Library
Credit: Mecanoo with Beyer Blinder Belle

The New York Public Library (NYPL) announced September 13 the receipt of $55 million from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation to support the complete renovation of the Mid-Manhattan Library, NYPL’s largest circulating branch. Combined with the recent boost in funding for FY18 capital projects from the city of New York, the Niarchos Foundation’s gift will enable the $200 million gut renovation of the 105-year-old building into a modern circulating branch that will offer programs for children, teens, and adults; meeting spaces; a business library; and a rooftop terrace, designed by the Dutch architecture firm Mecanoo in coordination with architects of record Beyer Blinder Belle. The Mid-Manhattan Library closed on August 1; NYPL plans to reopen it as the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library in early 2020.

“This gift is a culmination of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation’s long-standing and unwavering commitment to libraries around the globe,” said NYPL president Tony Marx in a statement. “We are so appreciative of the Foundation’s generosity, vision, and support as we transform our largest central branch into the library New Yorkers deserve and have never had. The project—also supported by our partners in New York City government—will allow for more use and a better flow of ideas and learning back and forth across Fifth Avenue” to NYPL’s main Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, where the research collection is housed.

The Niarchos Foundation, founded in 1996, makes grants to support arts and culture, education, health, and social welfare. It is a longtime contributor to NYPL, particularly its Out-of-School Time and early literacy programs. Foundation copresident Andreas Dracopoulos served as an NYPL trustee from 2003–10, and is now an honorary trustee. “The whole area of libraries within education has been a very important one for us,” stated Dracopoulous in a video. “I think this is an amazing opportunity to bring together the main research building and the circulating Mid-Manhattan to create this hub, this campus.”

For the past three years the foundation has also teamed up with the Charles H. Revson Foundation to cosponsor the NYC Neighborhood Library Awards, which recognize New Yorkers’ favorite libraries from all three systems with cash prizes and professionally produced videos celebrating each branch’s unique character. The short films have become important marketing components in fundraising advocacy.


Section of future Mid-Manhattan Library
Credit: Mecanoo with Beyer Blinder Belle

The gift constitutes the second largest gift in NYPL’s history; financier Stephen A. Schwarzman gave the system $100 million in 2008 to lead the transformation of its main branch, which now bears his name. Together the two buildings, located on either side of Fifth Avenue at 40th Street, form NYPL’s “Midtown Campus,” bridging the research functions of the Schwarzman Building and the Mid-Manhattan Library’s circulation and programming capabilities.

Plans for the Midtown Campus renovation date back to 2007, when then–NYPL president Paul LeClerc spearheaded an initiative known as the Central Library Plan (CLP). Under the original CLP, the Mid-Manhattan Library and the Science, Industry, and Business Library (SIBL) would have been sold to help finance a massive transformation of the Schwarzman building, demolishing the historic stacks that form the core of the building and rebuilding modern facilities in their place. Some three million books would have been relocated to an offsite storage facility. However, a coalition of library users and supporters objected loudly—and with the economic downturn of 2008, the library was unable to sell the Mid-Manhattan building for the needed sum.

Faced with new economic realities and a public that had emphatically made its wishes known, NYPL—now led by Anthony Marx—abandoned the CLP in 2014 and began rethinking plans for the two buildings. NYPL decided that the Mid-Manhattan Library would be renovated, rather than sold, eventually folding in the collections, staff, and programs now at SIBL (that building was sold to a division of Vulcan real estate in 2016, with the understanding that the Library will continue to operate in that space until the new Mid-Manhattan is ready to open). The Schwarzman Building’s stacks and collections will remain in place and a future project will expand that building’s public space. NYPL chief operating officer Iris Weinshall will manage the Midtown Campus project.

After an eight-month selection process, in September 2015 NYPL chose Mecanoo as design architects and Beyer Blinder Belle as architects of record for the Midtown Campus project. Mecanoo, well-known for its library work worldwide, designed the Library of Birmingham in the UK and the DC Public Library’s flagship Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, currently under construction. The New York–based Beyer Blinder Belle has a strong track record of standout historical renovations, including New York’s Grand Central Station and City Hall. Mecanoo principal and project lead Francine Houben is “a library whisperer,” Weinshall told LJ. “She really understands the essence of libraries….We felt very strongly that not only did we want a firm that lived and breathed libraries, but also a firm like Beyer Blinder Belle to be able to really translate that design into a buildable building.”

Houben spent a year collecting usage data and conducting interviews with staff, users, and community stakeholders. Preliminary designs were released in the fall of 2016. By August 1, 2017, all Mid-Manhattan collections and staff had moved to their temporary home in the Schwarzman Building, in a space previously used for storage. Care was taken with the swing space as well, installing new lighting and signage, restoring some of the historic flooring, and adding a women’s restroom. The space is dramatically smaller—8,000 square feet as opposed to Mid-Manhattan’s 100,000—but the staff is happy with it.

“I go down there often just to check what’s going on,” Weinshall recalled, “and one of the staff members came over to me—she was very excited—and she said, ‘As a librarian, I always dreamed of working in this building, and I’ve just got to tell you, I bought a whole new wardrobe because now I’m working in the main branch…. You’ve got to look the part in this library.”


New Banners at Mid-Manhattan Library
Photo credit: Jonathan Blanc / NYPL

Construction on Mid-Manhattan, which began September 5, will comprise a gut renovation of all interior spaces, with some light façade restoration and new windows. The original building, completed in 1912, was originally home to the Arnold Constable Department Store. “The bones of the building are really good,” Weinshall told LJ, “and we felt that there was no need to take the exterior down.”

Plans for the new 100,000 square foot space include an expansion of Mid-Manhattan’s capacity —the library will be able to hold some 400,000 circulating books and other materials, and the new floor plan will offer 35 percent more public space than before—as well as bringing in new services.

A 25,000 square foot children’s and teen center will occupy an entire floor, incorporating children’s materials taken from the closed Donnell Branch and relocated in Schwarzman. “We didn’t have a dedicated children’s or teen center in the old building,” noted NYPL vice president of development Jadrien Steele. “So it’s an opportunity for us to bring all the work we do with kids in the branches into Mid-Manhattan—all our early lit work, which we’ve been ramping up over the last three years.”

An adult learning center will bring in programs from around the city such as TechConnect and ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages), offering additional room for popular classes. Steele noted that currently there is a 4,000-person wait list for NYPL’s coding program alone.

SIBL’s collections and services will also move to Mid-Manhattan. In recent years “the nature of business libraries has shrunk dramatically,” Weinshall noted, so “there was no need for a 75,000 square foot library”—but it too will have its own floor.

One service that has not turned out to be obsolete in the 21st century is the library’s picture collection—over one million original prints, photographs, posters, postcards, and illustrations from books, magazines, and newspapers, classified into more than 12,000 subject headings, that users can borrow or reference on site. The picture collection has also moved to the Schwarzman Building during construction, but will be restored to its home in Mid-Manhattan once it reopens. “It’s absolutely one of our treasures and people love it, and it’s highly used,” Steele told LJ. “We’re definitely not getting rid of it.”

Additions also include approximately 17,000 square feet of general reading and study space with seating for nearly 1,500. A central “Long Room” will offer three floors of open, browsable stacks—an atrium-style layout Weinshall compares to Dublin’s Trinity College Library—and two floors of meeting rooms. One major item of new construction will be a seventh floor, which will hold over 11,000 square feet of multipurpose space for conference or meeting rooms, plus public space—one of the only rooftop terraces in Midtown that will be free and open to the public. There, said Weinshall, “the public can go out and view Fifth Avenue, and it’ll also have a great view of the Schwarzman Building.”

Staff spaces, located around the building’s perimeter, will also have access to natural daylight. The building envelope will be upgraded to comply with the 2016 New York City Energy Conservation Code, using high efficiency mechanical systems and high performance lighting systems; product selection has focused on sustainable materials. The project will achieve LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Silver certification, and is on track for Gold certification.


The planning process has not been without some bumps in the road—residents of the Fifth Avenue Tower, a condominium next door to the Mid-Manhattan Library, have filed a suit demanding a $15,000-a-month inconvenience fee from NYPL in return for allowing scaffolding and safety equipment to be erected in a park between the two buildings. NYPL is challenging the fee, which could add up to as much as $450,000 by the time construction is complete; if not settled, the legal fight could hold up exterior renovations.

Getting the project finished on time is a concern as well, said Weinshall—“Doing construction in New York, you just never know. But I’m feeling pretty confident…. I think the only other challenge is that the public love this building as much as we at the library [who] think that we’ve created this very special iconic space in the city of New York.”

For the most part, however, the library’s success in attracting funding for the overhaul represents strong community buy-in. “I think that what people are realizing…is that libraries provide the opportunity to be a great civic space, and for people to come together to get ideas,” said Steele, “and I think that is something that’s been increasingly appealing to supporters. As we’ve been working to create a library for the 21st century we’ve been expanding our activities…. We’ve been ramping up our digital work as well, not just preservation but also ebook lending, and that’s provided us the opportunity to speak to people who maybe didn’t think of libraries in the past.”

He added, “It’s really opened up doors for us that we didn’t have before. And what excites me when I look across all the major gifts we received this year, it really shows a diverse set of investments. There are people who invested in research acquisitions, branch capital, education, digital. It shows the relevancy of libraries in our age.”

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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