Cathedrals to the arts are not a revolutionary concept. We go to galleries and museums to get the best view of the visual arts, concert halls to hear music and theaters to see plays. But when it comes to the most contemplative art forms—those involving the written word—we take a regretfully scattershot approach. Where do we really read? On the LIRR next to a dude eating Funyuns for breakfast? In the bathroom? On our phones?
Having a quiet, concentrated read in the modern world requires Patience and Fortitude. Why the capitalization? These are the names Fiorello H. La Guardia gave the marble lions that have guarded the gates to the flagship New York Public Library at 5th Ave and 42nd St since 1911. (Patience perches south of the steps.)
The Rose Main Reading Room does a lot of the library’s heavy lifting. Almost two blocks long and featuring a blue sky mural on its 50-foot ceilings, the hallowed hall allows readers to work on the same oak tables where E.B. White and Henry Miller put pen to paper. (It also sits atop about 40 miles of research material tucked into seven tiers under adjacent Bryant Park.)
But it’s the library’s smaller enclaves that contain much of its charm. Just off the main entrance is the Map Division Room, a studious chamber where speaking above a whisper is not only discouraged, it’s unthinkable. Established in 1898, the Map Division contains about half a million sheet maps and atlases dating back to the 15th century. The collection was used during WWII by Allied intelligence to research coastlines within the theater of war, and while the materials are public, most of the maps are non- circulating and patrons must solve three ancient riddles in order to access them. (Not really. But advance requests are suggested.)
Just a short walk across the hall is the Children’s Center. Here, the volume is raised and New York’s unique breed of sophisticated- yet-sticky youngster can be found sprawling across the flouncy couches. The true treasure of the Children’s Center is, of course, its collection of 40,000 volumes tended by a staff of eternally patient and knowledgeable librarians. Just to give the place a little extra cachet, however, Christopher Robin Milne’s actual stuffed animals—Pooh, Eeyore, Piglet, Kanga and Tigger—are also on display.
Little treasures define the grand old library. They have a page from the Declaration of Independence as well as a Gutenberg Bible on display. Audio tours are available, along with free films, author talks, rotating educational exhibits and a Readers & Writers shop that will make any bookworm melt.
A plan to overhaul the building was abandoned last year. The $300 million proposal would have seen the removal of some 3 million books in order to transform the branch from a research-focused facility into a lending library. Designed by architect Norman Foster, the revamp had much to recommend it, but we’re glad the plan was shelved. The NYPL building beside Bryant Park is one of the best places in the world to sit down and read a book. Such sanctuaries are all too scarce.