The first Director of the New York Public Library (NYPL), Dr. John Shaw Billings (1838-1913) produced the plan for a seven-story central library building used by the architectural firm of Carrère & Hastings to design the Beaux Arts-style New York Public Library, also known as the “Main Branch.” This central library, The New York Public Library, is now called the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. John Merven Carrère (1858-1911) and Thomas Hastings (1860-1929) designed not only The New York Public Library building, but also the tables, chairs, lamps and chandeliers, hardware, and even the wastebaskets.
With ninety locations — including research and branch libraries — the New York Public Library (NYPL) serves three of New York City’s five boroughs: the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island. Brooklyn is served by the Brooklyn Public Library and Queens is served by the Queens Borough Public Library, because the three library systems predate the consolidation of the five boroughs in 1898.
Lieutenant Colonel Billings served as the first Librarian of the Library of the Surgeon General's Office, now the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM), from 1865 until 1895; designed the original buildings of the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore; and was the first Director of the New York Public Library. Before Dr. Billings became the first director of New York City’s public library system in 1896, New York City had both privately-endowed reference libraries that were open to the public and small public libraries.
He oversaw the consolidation of the New York Public Library as one organization. Attorney John Bigelow (1817-1911), a trustee of the Samuel J. Tilden (1814-1886) estate, which included a bequest by the former governor to establish a New York Public Library, engineered the consolidation of the Astor Library and Lenox Library as “The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.”
Their New York Public Library created a circulating department when it absorbed The New York Free Circulating Library in February of 1901. In March of that year, industrialist-turned-philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (1835-1912) pledged to donate $5,200,000 to build branches of the New York Public Library.
Subsequently, the New York Public Library contracted with the City of New York to operate thirty-nine Carnegie branch libraries in Manhattan, The Bronx, and Staten Island. To this day, the NYPL remains a public-private partnership.
The seven-and-a-half-ton cornerstone for The New York Public Library was laid on November 10, 1902. President William Howard Taft presided over the dedication on May 23, 1911, the sixteenth anniversary of the merger of public and private libraries to create the New York Public Library.
The firm Norcross Bothers erected the building, which they clad in white Vermont marble. Stirling Bronze & Company provided the metals.
James Wall Finn (1866-1913) painted the murals. Edward C. Potter sculpted the famous Library Lions in pink Tennessee marble.
Unlike the guardian lions at the Art Institute of Chicago, they do not have official names. During the Great Depression, Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia gave them the nicknames Patience and Fortitude.
The 390-foot-by-270-foot building is sixty-eight feet high at the front and ninety-eight feet high in the back. The cost of constructing the library building was $9,000,000. It was erected on a site worth $20,000,000.
Originally, books were delivered by horse-drawn carts via the covered driveway from 40th Street into the southern courtyard. This courtyard featured a marble fountain at its center, tie posts, a horse trough, and bronze lampposts and hydrants.
In 1919, eight years after The New York Public Library opened, a one-story bungalow was built in the southern courtyard to serve as a lunchroom for the employees. The employees held receptions, readings, amateur dramatic performances, puppet shows, and a pageant about the foundation of the NYPL. In 1950, during a period of city-wide water shortages, the marble fountain was demolished and replaced by a parking lot.
The marble floors of The New York Public Library were deemed so hard that in 1911 all employees were issued rubber-soled shoes. The O'Sullivan Company, which manufactured the heels of those shoes, quickly exploited the situation by placing advertisements urging consumers to visit The New York Public Library.
John H. Fedeler served as the first Superintendent of the Library from 1910 to 1940. From July of 1910 to 1941, he and his family lived in a seven-room apartment on the mezzanine floor. They moved out only because the library organization needed the space.
Fedeler and his wife raised three children in that apartment: John, Edouard, and Viviani. Their daughter Viviani Joffre was born in the building.
The eldest son, John H. Ephraim Fedeler, succeeded the father as the second Superintendent of the Library in 1941. He was born at the New York Produce Exchange building, where his father was superintendent prior to working at the New York Public Library.
The younger Fedeler resigned in 1949, at which time Meyer Berger interviewed him for The New York Times. In that article, Berger referred to The New York Public Library as the “Central Public Library.”
In the 1980s, The New York Public Library expanded. It gained over 125,000 square feet, including forty-four miles of shelves on two levels, under the adjacent Bryant Park.
This is the Bryant Park Stack Extension. The above-ground library building, which has eighty-eight miles of shelf space, became known as the Humanities & Social Science Library.
Construction of the Bryant Park Stack Extension coincided with the closure of Bryant Park, the site of the battlefield from the American War of Independence, to undergo restoration. The reinforced concrete Bryant Park Stack Extension was excavated thirty feet deep under Bryant Park.
Construction began in July of 1988. There is six feet of soil between the top of the Bryant Park Stack Extension and Bryant Park. It opened on September 3, 1991.
The total cost of the project was $24,000,000. This included conveyor systems, microfilm storage vault, lighting, climate control, fire suppression systems, and compact movable shelving.
The project was funded by the City of New York. The Humanities & Social Science Library and Bryant Park Stack Extension were connected by a 120-foot tunnel.