The underbelly of the New York Public Library is everything you want it to be. I know because I got to wander its hallways last week on a tour of the newly renovated Rose Main Reading Room with a member of the staff. It smells like old books, sports no dust, and the people who bustle past you on very important errands catch your eye with an understanding air of, “Yes, this is the New York Public Library. Yes, with the lions out front. Yes, it’s very cool.”
Ostensibly, I was there to tour the Rose Main Reading Room, which just reopened after almost two years of renovations… but let’s be honest. The book nerd part of me really wanted to see if they’d let me up on the catwalk. (Spoiler Alert: They did.) I was reminded almost immediately that the library is for so many a sacred space. There is an atmosphere of religion when you walk through the doors of the Rose Main Reading Room. People come from far and wide to gawk at the ceiling and brush their fingers along the edges of heavy tables lit by brass fixtures and dangling chandeliers. When you click through the gallery of images below, you will understand why. It is, quite simply, the kind of beauty that makes you want to stop and just breath for a few minutes. Here’s what it looks like without any Instagram filters or fudging of colors on an overcast day in October.
The library closed the Rose Main Reading Room in 2014 after one of the 100 or so decorative plaster rosettes that lined the ceiling came loose in the night and crashed to the floor. No one was hurt, but it was a sign that the ceiling needed a close look before patrons could be allowed back inside to resume their studies. The books were removed. Plastic sheeting covered all the woodwork. Scaffolding reached for the sky. They spent months checking that each and every rosette was tested to see if it was stable. They are made of plaster—actually the entire ceiling and all of its decorative elements are made of the stuff—and were only guaranteed for 100 years. It’s no surprise they started to wear out after 105, right? With the rosettes checked, and the scaffolding already installed, it seemed like the right time to renovate and repair the rest of the ceiling.
The library is actually in a constant state of repair and restoration. As a historic building, the organization has the responsibility to maintain its integrity in the story of New York. But as a continually operating public service institution, it also must stay up-to-date in terms of technology and its ability to serve a constantly growing and constantly diversifying population that uses the resources available there every day. They must simultaneously honor the brass fittings and pneumatic tubes that were once the height of innovation for moving books from the vast stacks below ground up to patrons in the reading rooms, and also celebrate the brand new digitized and shiny “book train” that’s being introduced as it is perfected now in 2016. I saw it on this tour and have to tell you it is both adorable and completely practical. Here’s a slightly closer look than you might get if you just dropped by and requested something to read.
The book train is still working out some hiccups in operation. It was actually not working at the time of my visit, but I spent a lot of time wondering if I could just pop my cellphone into one of the baskets just to see where it went and if it survived. (This is why people like me aren’t usually allowed near anything mechanical.)
Over the course of the two years when the Rose Main Reading Room was closed, architects and specialists worked together to reinforce 900 plaster elements in the ceiling with steel cables and worked with restorationists from EverGreene Architectural Arts to recreate a James Wall Finn mural on the ceiling of the Bill Blass Public Catalogue Room that is directly adjacent. The library also restored the chandeliers throughout the space and fitted them with LED lights. The windows may look gorgeous and allow for dappling sunlight to penetrate but readers need a bit more illumination when they’re working.
Below, you can get a good look at the amazing work that has been done to the space with these photos from the restoration. And in case you’re wondering just how much work it takes to empty and refill a reading room this large, check out the time lapse video that the library put together for patrons to enjoy. I’m tired just watching, and I didn’t even have to pick up a book.
If you have the chance to stop by the library in New York, it is definitely worth the trip.
Gallery Images Max Touhey Photography/Video & GIF via NYPL