The New York Public Library building at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street in Manhattan is a landmark. Completed in 1911, it is an exquisite example of turn-of-the-century neoclassical architecture; its facade is punctuated with stately Corinthian columns and soaring arched doorways. The solemn stone lion statues that flank its front steps have been adopted as emblems of the entire city library system.

The most impressive space within the library building is the Rose Main Reading Room, which recently received a $15 million renovation. The room is enormous -- approximately 300 feet long by 80 feet wide, with a ceiling that's 50 feet high. Before the renovation, the grand space had deteriorated greatly over the years. Its wooden tables were scratched, its window shades tattered, and its ceiling murals blackened with dirt and grime. The windows were painted black, first as a precaution against enemy air raids during World War II, and later to increase the readability of microfilm reading screens.

As Dr. Paul LeClerc, the library's president, explains to Martha, the renovators sought to bring the room into the 21st century while retaining the ambience of its neoclassical design. More than 30 construction companies with individual specialties were employed for the renovations. The plaster walls, which had been designed to resemble stone, were patched and cleaned. Workers used leaf blowers, industrial vacuum cleaners, solvents, and sea sponges to dislodge the grit from the ceiling, which is divided into three large rectangular panels affixed with canvases of sky and clouds. The large frescoes that originally occupied these spaces were found to be unsalvageable, so new murals were painted at an off-site studio and delivered to the library in sections. The rest of the ceiling was painted and regilded. The blackened windowpanes were replaced with new UV-filtering glass to protect books from deterioration.

The 42 enormous oak-and-maple tables in the room are inlaid with ebony; they had to be cleaned of chewing gum, sanded, and refinished. The oak chairs with curving scrolled arms were restored or copied to match the originals. The lamp-shade linings of the bronze table lamps were painted white to soften the glow of light on the tables.

The reading room can accommodate 636 readers and holds 25,000 research books. There are 3.5 million additional books available within minutes when a patron fills out a request, which is forwarded to the appropriate department via a new, continuously rotating vertical conveyor system. The book is then shuttled to the Rose Main Reading Room in a stack elevator.

Library patrons are free to use one of the many computers to do research on the Internet or on the specialized research networks with which the library is connected. In the unlikely event that a particular volume is not among the fifty-five million books possessed by the New York Public Library system, patrons can search the electronic records of a number of other libraries to locate what they need.

The New York Public Library building also contains a conservation lab devoted to preserving rare books, drawings, prints, and manuscripts. In addition, the Berg Collection is a renowned research collection specializing in first editions, manuscripts, and even artifacts such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning's slippers, Charlotte Bronte's portable escritoire, and William Thackeray's pen.

Comments (2)

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January 5, 2019
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Martha Stewart Member
January 4, 2019
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