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New York Public Library’s main branch revamp continues to inch forward

The city approved additional aspects included in the library’s $317 million master plan

Mecanoo + Beyer Blinder Belle, courtesy of the New York Public Library

The New York Public Library’s marble lions aren’t the only elements of the famed building that are about to get a makeover.

A piece of a larger master plan to restore several areas and increase public space in the NYPL’s landmarked Fifth Avenue building (formally known as the Steven A. Schwarzman Building) has been approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC).

The $317 million master plan—announced in 2017 and developed by architecture firms Mecanoo and Beyer Blinder Belle—includes a new entrance at West 40th Street that’s intended to improve public access (it was approved by the LPC in March), and the restoration of several rooms.

This week, the LPC voted to approve several aspects of the project’s South Court sections, including new door openings and glass partitions on the first floor, a connection between the service elevator vestibule to a new staff elevator lobby, a reconfigured staircase from the ground floor to the Celeste Auditorium, and demolition of interior partition walls on the first floor. The work, LPC commissioner Jeanne Lutfy said, “will help improve circulation and free access throughout the cellar and first floors in conjunction with the recently-approved 40th street entrance.”

All commissioners voted in favor of these changes, except for Michael Goldblum, who expressed concern about an enclosure within the service elevator—a connector is glazed, while the enclosure itself is not.

Goldblum isn’t alone in his concerns regarding the project. A preservationist group called Committee to Save the NYPL has been vocally opposed to the master plan since it was announced. The committee sent a letter to the LPC on Monday, asking the agency to deny the application, citing several reasons including the “redundancy” of a planned twin-elevator bank connecting the South Court to the North South Gallery, saying that the reason behind it may be “to streamline [the library’s] catering business for large special events and receptions that have become the new priority at the Main Branch.” That business, according to the letter,“caters to the wealthy and privileged at the expense of public access to this publicly-owned building sited in a public park.” The letter also cites violations to the City Charter, among other regulations.

According to a library spokesperson, the South Court section of the master plan won’t require any further LPC approval and will move into its construction phase. The master plan is divided into phases, with different sections opening at different times: The Scholar Center, the second-floor space that kicked off the plan in 2018, will open later this year, and the Treasures permanent exhibition, on the building’s main floor, will open in late 2020.

“The Library’s proposal of its South Court space was designed to improve flow, circulation, and visitor experience while preserving the building’s historical and architectural integrity,” Iris Weinshall, NYPL’s chief operating officer, said in a statement. “This work will create greater access to our collections and exhibitions, particularly the Treasures exhibition opening in Gottesman Hall next year.”

NYPL - Stephen A. Schwarzman Building

455 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY