The reimagined, renovated library on 40th Street and Fifth Avenue, generously supported by New York City and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF), now offers timed browsing and by-appointment computer use as part of the Library system’s phased reopening

This critically-important public amenity—designed by architecture firm Mecanoo with Beyer Blinder Belle— offers free and open access to books, computers, and other materials, as well as children’s and teen spaces, an adult learning center, a business center, and a rooftop terrace, all in the heart of Midtown

NYPL President Anthony W. Marx: “It is the central circulating library New York City has long needed, wanted, and deserves. As we all look towards our next chapter of recovery and renewal, it is important that learning and opportunity be readily and freely accessible to all. There is no more important or better-timed civic infrastructure project to accomplish those ever present and pressing goals.”

The New York Public Library officially opened its completely-transformed central circulating library, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library (SNFL), at a ribbon-cutting ceremony this morning. The Library opened its doors to the public with expanded hours and service at 1 PM. 

The library on 40th Street and Fifth Avenue, formerly named the Mid-Manhattan Library, was renovated, and completely transformed with generous support from New York City, and a landmark $55 million grant from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF)—the second largest one-time individual gift in The New York Public Library’s 126-year history. The building’s modern interior and overall inspiring design is by Dutch architect Francine Houben of Mecanoo architects, a “library whisperer” who also designed the renovation of the Martin Luther King Library in Washington DC, among others, along with the unique expertise of renowned New York City-based firm Beyer Blinder Belle.

“The Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library (SNFL) is the central circulating library that New York City has long needed, wanted, and deserved,” said NYPL President Anthony W. Marx. “As we all look towards our next chapter of recovery and renewal, it is more important than ever that our public social infrastructure be strong, and that learning and opportunity be readily and freely accessible. There is no greater public project, no greater public amenity, than this one to help accomplish those goals. In the heart of Midtown, this building will be a beacon of learning and growth, supporting education for the youngest New Yorkers and beyond. We have waited a long time to give this great gift to the people of New York City. We are so proud to share it now when the needs are so pressing.”

“The transformed Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library shows our city is coming back better than ever before,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio. “The City invested in this landmark institution because we know it will be a place to connect New Yorkers to each other and to the world beyond our city. This is what a Recovery for All of Us looks like.”

“This library is exactly what New York needs right now: a truly open and public place accessible to all, where people of all ages and backgrounds can experience wonder, grow in their understanding of the world, and launch on new trajectories that enrich life for all of us,” said Andreas Dracopoulos, Co-President of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF). “Thriving public space is space that people can truly make their own, where everyone belongs, and SNFL is beautifully designed to encourage just that. As New Yorkers and global citizens, we could not be prouder and more excited for all SNFL has to offer the city in the years to come.”

The Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library (SNFL)

The transformative $200 million renovation of the Library’s central circulating library—455 Fifth Avenue, a building constructed in 1914-15 as the Arnold Constable & Co department store and occupied by the Library beginning in the 1970s—includes eight floors of important amenities that serve all ages. Key elements of the new 180,000-square-foot library include:

  • Capacity for approximately 400,000 books and other browsable materials, the largest capacity for circulating materials in The New York Public Library system, which serves the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island
  • Double the seats as Mid-Manhattan, and 20,000 additional square feet.
  • A “Long Room”—the central element and most significant architectural intervention in the transformed branch—offering five levels of open, browsable book stacks fronting on a dramatic, 42-foot high atrium, as well as two connected floors of classrooms, education and programming spaces, meeting rooms, and consultation rooms. The Long Room was Houben’s innovative solution to the issue of holding hundreds of thousands of books and other materials while also offering inspiring, open, light-filled space full of seating.
  • The only free, publicly-accessible rooftop terrace in Midtown. 
  • The 21,000-square-foot Thomas Yoseloff Business Center (named for the grandfather of NYPL Trustee Anthony Yoseloff), occupying an entire floor and providing the services and circulating collections of the former Science, Industry and Business Library. It will offer patrons access to electronic resources (such as Bloomberg Terminals), comprehensive print materials, and in-person programs, classes, 1-on-1 sessions, and offerings in the fields of personal finance and investing, small business resources, business and financial research, and career services. 
  • The 20,000-square-foot Pasculano Learning Center—the Library’s largest adult learning center—which will provide a seamless continuum of educational opportunities to support lifelong learning (including technology training, ESOL and citizenship classes, and so on).
  • A new 26,000-square-foot floor of separate spaces entirely for kids and for teens; there were no dedicated spaces for children or young adults in the former Mid-Manhattan Library. The floor—located on the lower level of the building, which was formerly closed to the public and used for storage, space-inefficient book sorting equipment, and mechanical equipment—includes child-sized furniture and shelving, computers, books, programming spaces, podcasting studios, reading nooks (for any children, but specifically designed as quiet spaces for children with unique needs), and a book sorter that allows kids to return their books through a slot and watch as a conveyor belt sorts them into appropriate bins to be returned to the shelves.
  • Approximately 44,000-square-feet of open, general public library space, including double the previous seating, computers, shelves, and more, on the Library’s second through fourth floors, holding the majority of the library’s circulating collection for adults, named the Marron Family Circulating Collections in honor of long-serving NYPL trustee, and former Chairperson of the Board, Catherine Marron and her family and their lifetime of leadership giving. 

The renovated branch is central to the Library’s plan to create a world-class learning center in the middle of Midtown, uniting in one central campus the Library’s full spectrum of resources—from the Library’s renowned historical collections cherished by scholars from around the world to its much-needed circulating materials, programs, and events for all ages.

Construction, COVID-19, Impact

Construction began on SNFL in 2017, when the Mid-Manhattan Library was temporarily closed and its services moved across the street to the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building’s ground floor. The project—managed by Tishman Construction—was completed on time, on budget, and ready for a planned grand opening in May of 2020 (coinciding with the Library’s 125th anniversary). The opening was delayed as part of the Library’s efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. In July 2020, the first floor of the transformed building opened to provide New Yorkers with grab-and-go book checkout service, and in May of this year, the Thomas Yoseloff Business Center opened for appointments. Now, on June 1, the lower level through fourth floor, including the Long Room, will be open for limited browsing and by-appointment computer use, and New Yorkers can get their first look at most parts of their new central circulating library. 

Due to safety protocols and staffing capacity, there are still no in-person programs, and in the immediate future, the Pasculano Learning Center and rooftop terrace need to remain closed. But the Library is working towards opening those services as soon as circumstances allow.

Expanded hours for the building beginning today are Monday to Thursday, 10 AM to 8 PM, and Friday and Saturday, 10 AM to 6 PM.

The Vision: Timeless, Beautiful, Functional

The SNFL design team—a true collaboration between Mecanoo, which led the design stages, Beyer Blinder Belle, which led the historic preservation and acted as architect of record, and the Library’s leadership and Capital Planning staff including Chief Operating Officer Iris Weinshall and Vice President of Capital Planning and Construction Risa Honig—was dedicated to creating a beautiful, light-filled, inspiring central circulating library with a classic, timeless, functional design, as well as elements that speak to the building’s history and complementary relationship to the historic Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. 

“Libraries are incredibly unique spaces, houses of knowledge and creation that must inspire, welcome, and serve all, ” said architect Francine Houben. “They are the most democratic, important public spaces, each one serving a specific community, each one needing to be strong to cope with the number of people who visit every day. In this case, we were entrusted with a historic building in New York City, one that receives millions of visits every year but was never built to be a library. We needed to take the bones of that building and reimagine the ultimate library: certainly beautiful and filled with light, but above all able to meet the ever-changing needs of the institution and the New Yorkers it serves. We created a welcoming public space that will be beautiful and functional now and 100 years from now, with a Long Room with a beautiful ceiling and long tables reminiscent of the iconic research library across Fifth Avenue, a new children’s and teen space, and a unique and beautiful “Wizard’s Hat” on top with a free public terrace. There is something to inspire every visitor in the most diverse City in the world, and I am proud of that.” 

Key interventions and architectural / design features of SNFL include:

  • Leveraging the synergy of SNFL and the 42nd Street library with features that reflect this harmony: long tables that recall the impressive scale of those in the 42nd Street library’s Rose Main Reading Room, ceiling artwork in the Long Room that echoes the neoclassical paintings set in the 42nd Street building’s ceilings, and the use of classic materials including natural stone, terrazzo, and oak.
  • “Wizard’s Hat” on the roof: the design team moved some of the building’s mechanical equipment to a penthouse above the roof, opening up new public space on the seventh floor (formerly the roof level). The equipment is enclosed by a sculptural painted and perforated metal structure, named “the wizard’s hat” by Houben. Beautiful and unique, the structure’s color is reminiscent of Manhattan’s Beaux Art patinated copper-clad mansard roofs, often found in midtown; two examples from 1904 are visible from the terrace. The Wizard’s Hat also serves to create an expressively shaped ceiling in the multi-purpose program rooms on the seventh floor, key spaces for NYPL’s robust suite of public events.
  • Modern use of columns: Rather than removing existing structural columns at large expense, Houben incorporated these elements into the design, creating “long tables” that span between columns, and by using the columns for directional signage.
  • “Long Room”: To maintain the building’s 400,000-book capacity while creating an open, welcoming space with plenty of natural light (things the Mid-Manhattan Library—with tall shelves that disrupted sightlines and on some floors darkened the space by blocking light from windows—did not have), the architects created the Long Room along the eastern end of the building. The heart of the building, the dramatic linear atrium and five levels of browsable book stacks across three floors of the building immediately tells patrons they are in a library, not a department store. This elegant solution—reminiscent of the stacks at the 42nd Street building—involves flexible shelving; if in 100 years, books are not kept the way they are today, the shelving can be altered to accommodate new formats or needs. This was critically important to Houben, who said, “Libraries have always made knowledge accessible. That hasn’t changed in 100 years. How knowledge is maintained and formatted, that has changed. So the Library needs to be able to adapt, or else it has a shelf life.”
  • “Mini Long Room” for adult learning: Above the five floors of browsable book stacks in the Long Room is a smaller, two story “mini Long Room” combining the Thomas Yoseloff Business Center and the Pasculano Learning Center, and providing consulting rooms for one-on-one services and meetings. These floors are designed to feel more like an office with a business atmosphere, quiet and separated from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the Library. 
  • Creative Ways to Find Natural Light: The design team worked to incorporate natural light into the space wherever possible. For example, windows were added to the south side of the Long Room to add natural light to floors two through six. That side of the building faces a pocket park with no buildings to impede the view or the light.  Additionally, in order to add natural light and a feeling of openness on the lower level (which had never been open as a public space), Houben envisioned two cut-outs in the first floor slab, including a large rectangular opening above the children’s room that allows natural light from the 40th Street windows to reach the space. A second void in the first floor allows for natural light in the teen space, and importantly creates a separate entry stair for teen patrons, identifying it as a space of their own. 
  • Transforming a utilitarian roof to a rooftop terrace: At the top of the Mid-Manhattan Library was a typical NYC roof, with mechanical equipment and penthouses, but mostly empty space. By placing the building’s cooling tower and generator inside the “Wizard Hat,” the design team leveraged the remaining available rooftop space to create a glass-enclosed programming room, an indoor public cafe, and an L-shaped roof terrace with views of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building across the street. They also created a private “secret garden” programming space on one end of the terrace for storytimes or other library programs.
  • Restored, cleaned historic facade; more than 75% of the original building structure and envelope was used, and now performs as efficiently as a new construction project.
  • The building was renovated with sustainability as a priority; it is at least LEED certified Silver, and other key points include:
    • Completely new energy-efficient mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems
    • Overall energy savings of 36% over baseline standards
    • Materials are low-emitting and include more than 50% FSC-certified wood and more than 10% recycled content
  • Accessibility: All floors of the building, including the Long Room, are ADA-accessible. 

“A central circulating library must empower the community it serves,” Houben said. “Here, the community is all New Yorkers. Super-charged with energy, diversity and hope, America’s greatest city deserves the best that a central circulating library can be. The Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library is a powerhouse of wisdom, and its street presence brings drama and magic to Manhattan, visibly expressed with its Wizard Hat.”

“The public was always attached to the Mid-Manhattan Library, even though over the years it had become a tired space,” said Elizabeth Leber, managing partner at Beyer Blinder Belle. “The building had good bones and stood the test of time for more than 100 years, but it hadn’t been renovated since 1978, and there were challenges making it feel welcoming and manageable. The comprehensive renovation will allow the building to serve New Yorkers well for another hundred years. And it’s deeply meaningful to us to give the building new life rather than tear it down. More than 75 percent of the structure and envelope was retained. As preservationists, architects, and champions of New York City and public libraries, we couldn’t support NYPL’s decision to invest in the building more.”

A Public-Private Partnership

The New York Public Library’s history is built on a foundation of public-private partnerships, and SNFL is the latest example. 

The Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF), one of the world’s leading grantmaking organizations, is connected to a global community of partners working to create transformational change in the areas of arts and culture, education, health and sports, and social welfare. SNF, which believes firmly in the power of public-private partnerships, has a long-established relationship with The New York Public Library, supporting educational programs and exhibitions that make the work and collections of the Library more accessible to all. 

The Foundation made a transformational $55 million grant in 2017 to support the creation of the reimagined central circulating branch, and to help establish the Midtown Campus. The grant, the second largest individual one-time gift in the 126-year history of the Library, also established an endowment for programming at the renovated library. The library was named the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library because of this gift, as well as the Foundation’s extensive previous support: in total, the Foundation has given the Library over $60 million in support. 

The Foundation’s generous support was combined with $150 million from New York City, first allocated for the Midtown renovation project by Mayor Mike Bloomberg, and then specifically allocated to the complete renovation of the Mid-Manhattan Library by Mayor Bill de Blasio. 

“As the City moves forward and works to recover and revitalize following a dark chapter, it is absolutely critical that its public social infrastructure be as strong as possible, especially places like public libraries, open to all and offering the tools needed to help strengthen individuals and communities,” said NYPL President Anthony W. Marx. “To do this, we need commitment and partnership across the public and private sectors. SNFL stands as a symbol of opportunity for all and resilience, as well as an example of what can happen for the people of a city when that dedication to education, growth, and community exists.”

“I am thrilled to see New York City’s largest central circulating library, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library, which was completely transformed, open its doors to the public,” said City Council Speaker Corey Johnson. “Libraries have always been an important lifeline for New Yorkers and in-person facilities were sorely missed during the COVID-19 pandemic. But libraries continued to serve our city by holding online programming and many of them served as testing and vaccination centers. And like our city, these libraries are coming back stronger than ever. This Council is proud of its long-standing support for New York City’s three public library systems and will continue fighting for the resources they need to serve New Yorkers.”  

“I’m proud to be here to cut the ribbon in the next step in the New York Public Library’s plan to create a campus for learning in the heart of Manhattan that will unite NYPL’s scholarly collections with its circulating materials and programs,” said Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer. “The opening of NYPL’s Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library with its free and open access to books, computers and dedicated spaces for children, teens and adults, as well as a business center and a rooftop terrace provides New Yorkers with a sign of renewal and hope as we begin our efforts to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“New York’s public library system is the envy of the world,” said New York State Senator Brad Hoylman. “City services like our public libraries will be a critical part of our city’s re-opening and showing the world that New York is back. The Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library will be an incredible landmark for decades to come.”

“It’s a great day in New York City to open the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library,” said City Council Member Keith Powers. “The renovation and reopening of this midtown library location couldn’t come at a better time, after a difficult year. Reading has provided a great escape for many while having to stay at home, and now New Yorkers have a beautiful new branch to enjoy in person as we return to normal.”

History

The building now housing SNFL opened in 1915 as the Arnold, Constable & Company department store. Clad in limestone with a granite base, the neoclassical commercial expression was designed by architect T. Joseph Bartley on a site owned by the Vanderbilt family (the family had a house on the site). 

The actual department store occupied the first two floors, which beginning in 1957 were connected by an escalator. All the upper floors were for storage and light manufacturing. The penthouse was the employee lunch room. The original entrances were at Fifth Avenue and on 39th Street (the latter is now an employee entrance). There was also an entrance on the 40th Street side specifically for carriages. 

The building was quite Innovative for its time: it had HVAC, sprinklers, a pneumatic tube system, and conveyor belts.

The New York Public Library took over the building in 1970, and occupied all floors by 1976. Previously, its central circulating collection was housed at the 42nd Street library across the street.

While a complete renovation of the space was done in 1978 by well-known Italian architect Giorgio Caviglieri (who also did the Library’s Jefferson Market branch, the Public Theater, and coined the term “adaptive reuse”) the building never lost its department store aesthetic, and the Mid-Manhattan Library operated for decades in a building that was never intended to be a library. 

A renovation was a priority of the Library for many years, and there were several plans put forward that went unrealized. In 2014, New York Public Library President Anthony W. Marx announced that the Mid-Manhattan would undergo a complete renovation, utilizing $150 million in funding from New York City. In 2015, Dutch architect Francine Houben of Mecanoo was chosen to lead the project with Elizabeth Leber of New York City based firm Beyer Blinder Belle. The team worked for over a year analyzing library usage data, interviewing staff, surveying the public, and meeting with community stakeholders to ensure that the new branch would best meet the needs of library patrons, and what followed was a beautiful, light-filled, inspiring central circulating library with a classic, timeless, functional design, as well as elements that speak to the building’s history and complementary relationship to the historic Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. The Mid-Manhattan Library temporarily closed in 2017 so construction could begin. The same year, the Library announced a landmark $55 million grant from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) for the renovation, appropriately following in the Library’s long tradition of public-private partnership to strengthen the people of New York City.

Public Art to Inspire

Public art is an important part of the building’s design. For example, to further enliven the lower level, NYPL commissioned a mural from acclaimed local illustrator and graphic designer Melinda Beck. The mural by Beck, who has received numerous awards including two Emmy nominations and has worked with the US Postal Service and Time Magazine among others, was specifically selected and designed to speak to SNFL’s geographical and cultural position at the heart of New York City, wraps the walls of the Teen Room, and helps define the space as one that embraces creativity and curiosity. 

Another major example of public art in the SNFL can be found on the ceiling of the Long Room. Spanning the 85 by 17 foot atrium is a puzzle-like composition created by artist Hayal Pozanti to celebrate the evolution of the written word. Her distinctive, colorful shapes correspond to the 31 characters of an invented alphabet the artist calls Instant Paradise. Developed through a process involving encryption and intuition, these complex geometric forms correlate to 12 milestones in the history of the written word – from the development of clay tablets and papyrus through to Braille, and the advent of electronic ink.

Pozanti has had exhibitions and installations worldwide, most notably nearby at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) and One World Trade Center with the Public Art Fund.

“The correlation between libraries, books, language, and my work seemed completely natural,” artist Hayal Pozanti said. “What better place to focus on language and use a universal alphabet than a public library? The project was incredibly exciting for me because I love books, and libraries are among my favorite places. So of course I was interested in proposing something, and the history of writing made sense to me. Language is such a universal aspect of being human. It’s innate to human beings. It’s part of being human. I wanted to emphasize that ideal of universalism, global commonalities. So by picking and choosing points in history from a global perspective, not just western, I feel the work does that.”

The Library commissioned the piece, which is comprised of 95 individual pieces of medium density fiberboard, as part of the renovation; the design team specifically wanted public art that would provide a bold, modern take on the ceiling murals in the Rose Main Reading Room in the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building.

“This beautiful piece provides a further connection between the two libraries,” said Houben. “It is so bold, so different, but still closely tied with the concept of inspirational, public art across Fifth Avenue. People will spend many hours in this building, reading and learning. To look up and see something that prompts you to think, to learn. It adds so much.”

As part of the renovation, the Library also commissioned a special chair for the first time in over 100 years: a special “branch chair” from well-respected furniture maker Thos. Moser, a Maine-based company celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2022. Approximately 200 of the chairs were fabricated for SNFL, designed with input from the design team, the Library, and others to be exceptionally comfortable for long hours and durable for the heavy use branch chairs typically endure. Each chair is made of Pennsylvania white oak, takes seven production hours, and uses 11.5 board feet of wood. The chairs were built to be reminiscent of the special chairs that architects Carrère and Hastings designed for the 42nd Street library in 1907. Those chairs are still in use at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. For example, the Moser branch chair uses a bridle joint to connect the arms to the front legs; this same joint is used in the more costly Carrère and Hastings chairs across the street. 

“There are specific parameters you have to abide by when designing a chair – the human form dictates a lot of the foundational design elements,” said Aaron Moser, president and CEO of Thos. Moser. “And creating a chair that can remain relevant for the next 100 years and beyond only adds to the challenge. You know you’ve succeeded when the final result transcends time and space, and it sits comfortably in a broad range of environments from public libraries to home offices and boardrooms. The NYPL Branch Chair does precisely that.” 

About The New York Public Library

For 125 years, The New York Public Library has been a free provider of education and information for the people of New York and beyond. With 92 locations—including research and branch libraries—throughout the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island, the Library offers free materials, computer access, classes, exhibitions, programming and more to everyone from toddlers to scholars, and has seen record numbers of attendance and circulation in recent years. The New York Public Library receives approximately 16 million visits through its doors annually and millions more around the globe who use its resources at www.nypl.org. To offer this wide array of free programming, The New York Public Library relies on both public and private funding. Learn more about how to support the Library at nypl.org/support. 

Video: SNFL / NYPL
Photo: SNFL / NYPL