Last night, as part of Open House New York's Projects in Planning lecture series, architects Francine Houben, of Mecanoo, and Liz Leber, of Beyer Blinder Belle, sat down to dissect their ambitious renovation of the New York Public Library's Mid-Manhattan branch.
The branch closed last August for a $200 million revamp that has completely re-envisioned the branch’s interiors and programming, as well as its relationship to the NYPL’s grand main branch across the street. With demolition now underway, the architects say it will be revealed to the public in January of 2020.
Leber presented first, explaining the history of the 1914 building at 455 Fifth Avenue. It was originally a department store, and though it was renovated for the NYPL in 1978, it hasn’t gotten a significant upgrade since. That design—with low ceilings, high bookshelves blocking light, and tired finishes—is now in dire shape. But the renovation goes far beyond freshening up the interior, as Houben went on to explain.
Houben said the design team aimed to create a "campus" between the Mid-Manhattan branch and the landmarked main building just across Fifth Avenue. To establish that "visual relationship,” the Mid-Manhattan is getting a roof deck that will look down onto the building. (More about the roof deck perks later.)
At the building entrance, a new revolving door and massive windows will better reflect the building's past as a department store. The entryway will be opened up, with the outdated escalator (back from the building's department store days) gone. The building's original columns will remain on display, often anchoring long work and display tables. And the red carpet as you enter is a nod to the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, the architects said.
The second, third and fourth floors floors will be gutted to create "the long room," an open space with catwalks lined with bookshelves. Bridges will connect work spaces to the circulating library collection, with three skywalk levels on one side of the library and five levels lining the other.
Houben explained it as "more space, more books, more seats, and lower shelves." By added new windows, and removing shelving that blocked windows, the space will get an influx of natural light.
Below the long room, the architects have designed dedicated children's and teen spaces. A separate staircase will lead to the teen area to make it feel like a private, distinct space, Houben said. To encourage users to take the stairs, windows will be added to the stairwells.
Houben designed for a "vertical arrangement of programs… to improve the user experience and journey of learning," so there are distinct purposes to each floor. "The higher you get, the more quiet it will be," she said. Above the long room, the fifth floor will be dedicated to a business library, the sixth floor will hold a learning center for adults, and the seventh floor is a multipurpose space surrounded by the roof deck and landscaping.
What Houben calls the building's "wizard hat" will be finished in a copper green to reflect the architecture of the the surrounding buildings. Inside, there will be a multipurpose room with a dramatic peaked ceiling, and glazed sliding doors looking out to the outdoor space. (Users will have the ability to draw curtains to make the space more private.) A small cafe and "secret garden" will also be included on the roof.
Other design elements the architects mentioned include making the building LEED Silver, with improved acoustics and better air quality, faster and more efficient elevators, and the use of sturdy interior materials like terrazzo. (Also a nod to the Schwarzman Building.)
"The goal is to create communities so people come back," Houben told the crowd. Before the renovation, the branch accommodated 1.3 million visitors a year. Once it reopens in 2020, it'll be filled with over 400,000 books as part of the circulating collection.