Stephen A. Schwarzman Building Facts

The New York Public Library was formed by the consolidation of the Tilden Trust and the Astor and Lenox libraries on May 23, 1895. The cornerstone of its landmark Stephen A. Schwarzman Building was laid on November 10, 1902.

  • Architecture Style: Beaux-Arts
  • Status: Registered National Historical Landmark
  • Builder: Norcross Brothers
  • Decorative Paintings: James Wall Finn
  • Metals: Stirling Bronze & Co.
  • Furniture: Derby Desk Co.
  • Construction duration: 16 years from design to completion
  • Building cost: $9,000,000 on a $20,000,000 plot
  • Building dimensions: 390' x 270' = 10,382,600 cubic feet; height 68' front; 98' back
  • Building space: three floors

Building Construction

  • The building was constructed on the site of the old Croton Reservoir.
  • The cornerstone, weighing 7.5 tons,  holds a relic box containing contracts between New York City and the Library, photographs, newspapers, and letters from the Trustees and Mayor of New York.
  • Some stones from the reservoir were used to construct the original foundation and can now be seen from the lower levels of the South Court building.
  • The floor plan was sketched on a postcard in 1897 by John Shaw Billings, The New York Public Library's first director. As the postcard shows, both the northern and southern courtyards were in place from the start.
  • Original architects John Merven Carrère and Thomas Hastings designed the building as well as the tables, chairs, lamps, and chandeliers—even the hardware and wastebaskets. Commemorative busts of Carrère and Hastings can be found in niches partway up the staircases on either side of Astor Hall—Carrère's on the north staircase, Hastings's on the south.
  • The exterior is constructed from Vermont marble, which originated in two quarries on Dorset Mountain. Over 65% of the stone quarried failed to meet the architects' standards. The stone rejected by the Library was incorporated into other contemporary buildings including Harvard Medical School.
  • Using 530,000 cubic feet of marble, with exterior marble facing 12 inches thick, the library used more than six times the marble used in the New York Stock Exchange and the New York Chamber of Commerce combined.
  • The Library Lions, sculpted by Edward C. Potter in pink Tennessee marble, have been known by various nicknames since they were placed in front of the library building at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street in 1911. Although they have no official names, they are commonly known as Patience and Fortitude.

Library Opening

  • The building at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street was dedicated by President William Howard Taft on May 23, 1911.
  • The building, which took 16 years to design and complete, was the largest marble building ever built in the U.S. at the time it opened in 1911.
  • The building was opened to the public at 9:00 a.m. on May 24, 1911. More than 50,000 people visited the library. The library was opened for 13 hours until 10:00 p.m.
  • On opening day in 1911, the first book requested from the main stacks was Delia Bacon's Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare Unfolded. The book, much to the staff's chagrin, was not in the catalog and a staff member donated the book two days afterwards. Fifty years later it was discovered that the interchange had been a setup; the staff member had hoped to generate publicity for the book.
  • The first book to actually be delivered from the main stacks, a speedy seven minutes after the call slip was deposited, was Nravstvennye idealy nashego vremeni (Moral ideas of our time: Friedrich Nietzsche and Leo Tolstoy) by Nikolai I. Grot.

The Southern Courtyard

  • Horses were both frequent and welcomed visitors to the landmark Library's open-air southern courtyard, designed as the service and delivery center. Books were delivered by horse-drawn carts via the covered driveway from 40th Street. Tie posts and a horse trough complemented the southern courtyard's other fixtures, which included a marble fountain in its center and functioning bronze lampposts and hydrants.
  • Later, the southern courtyard became the recreational and social center for Library staff. A one-story bungalow was constructed in 1919 to serve as a lunchroom and was the only above-ground addition made to the Library's exterior until 1999, when construction began on the South Court building.
  • In its early history, the south courtyard hosted events including receptions, readings, amateur drama performances, puppet shows, and at least one home-grown circus. For a pageant celebrating the Library's fortieth anniversary, the court was hung with Japanese lanterns and toy balloons. Dressed in turn-of-the-century costumes, staffers regaled the audience with scenes from the Library's early history and a revue of satirical skits. The evening culminated with dancing in the main lobby.
  • After automobiles replaced the horses, parking was only sporadically permitted. In 1950, after the central fountain was demolished due to chronic city-wide water shortages, the courtyard was converted to a parking lot. The courtyard's reign as the Library's center of social activities was over.
  • In June 2002, the Library's South Court building, a six-story glass structure that rises within the southern courtyard of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, opened. It is the first permanent above-ground structure to be added to the landmark Library since the building opened in 1911.

Bryant Park

Coinciding with the restoration of Bryant Park and its temporary closing, the reinforced concrete Bryant Park Stack Extension was excavated 30 feet deep under Bryant Park, on the site of the Revolutionary War battlefield. Construction began in July of 1988.

  • There is 6 feet of soil between the top of the extension and the park.
  • 120,000 square feet is linked to the main building by a 120-foot tunnel.
  • The Stack Extension opened September 3, 1991. The total cost was $24,000,000 including 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 Milstein Research Stacks, which began construction in winter 2015, allow the Library to continue to hold 4 million research volumes onsite—as many or more than it ever has—while enabling it to satisfy approximately 95 percent of research requests with onsite materials.

The Rose Main Reading Room

The Rose Main Reading Room was completely renovated and restored due to the generosity of the Rose family and reopened in November 1998.

  • Name: Deborah, Jonathan F. P., Samuel Priest, and Adam R. Rose Main Reading Room
  • Funded by: Library Trustee Sandra Priest Rose and Frederick Phineas Rose
  • Restoration Architects: Davis Brody Bond, LLP  
  • Restoration Project Duration: One and a half years  
  • Dimensions: 78' wide x  297' long x 51' 2" high. The size of the Rose Reading Room almost equals a football field. It is one of the largest rooms in the United States without a dome, interior columns, or steel-reinforced walls to support the ceiling.
  • Seating: 42 oak tables, each seating up to 16 readers (624 reader seats; only 490 reader seats before renovation)
  • Ceiling: New murals were inspired by the original paintings. They give the impression of looking through the ceiling up to the sky. The ceiling is executed in plaster, with molded ornamentation, decorative painting, gold and copper leaf, and recessed murals.
  • Walls: Caen stone (plaster, designed to resemble stone block)
  • Floors: 2" thick red quarry tile (imported from Wales), with marble border
  • Tables: American white oak on marble bases: 22' x 4', tops weigh over 600 lbs. each

Library Fun Facts

  • NYPL Research Libraries have a unique classification system. Many of the books are shelved according to a system designed by the first director, Dr. John Shaw Billings. His system was not always easy to adapt, so since the 1950s, books in many parts of the collection have been shelved according to size.
  • The landmark building was originally fueled by coal, needing more than 20 tons a day, and producing ash that had to be carted away daily.
  • The marble floors of the Library were deemed so hard that in 1911 all employees were supplied with rubber soled shoes. The O'Sullivan Company quickly exploited the fact and placed advertisements urging consumers to visit the Library, where the employees used the company's heels.
  • Library employees once ran a co-operative General Store in the building's basement. The store opened June 9, 1920, and carried everything from stockings to sardines. It sold groceries and general merchandise, canned and fresh food, produce, tobacco products—even clothes and sewing supplies.
  • The winter of 1929–30 was the most active period in the Library's history. It was not uncommon for there to be 800 to 1,000 people in the Main Reading Room, a standing room only capacity. The single busiest day in the Main Reading Room was December 30, 1929, when 8,939 books were requested.
  • After Pearl Harbor was attacked, the most valuable volumes and manuscripts at the Library were moved to bank vaults around New York City. 12,000 items from the collection, valued at that time at $10 million, were temporarily moved to a secret location 250 miles away.

Library Personalities

  • John Fedeler, the first superintendent of the Library, lived in an eight-room apartment on the mezzanine floor from 1911 to 1941, raising two children there. His daughter was born in the building. His son, John H. E. Fedeler, assumed the position of superintendent in 1941. He was born at the NY Produce Exchange, where his father was superintendent prior to working at the Library.
  • Norbert Pearlroth, the Ripley's Believe It or Not! researcher from 1923 to 1975, found all the information for the newspaper feature using the huge collection in the Library's Main Reading Room. A speaker of several languages with a prodigious memory, Mr. Pearlroth came to the Library each day and relied on serendipity to find his amazing facts. It's estimated that he reviewed 7,000 books each year (that's 364,000 in 52 years)!
  • In 1926, the Library boasted six former Olympic athletes on its staff (four Americans and two Danes): a hurdler, three high jumpers, one broad jumper, a mountain climber, an oarsman/canoeist, and a discus thrower.
  • Espionage at the library! Whittaker Chambers, Alger Hiss's accuser, was an NYPL employee (1923–27). His conversion to Communism was the result of a meeting with a party member in the Library. He was dismissed from the Library for stealing books.
  • More espionage! F.B.I. Agent Earl Edwin Pitts met with a Russian KGB senior official in Room 228 of the Library in July 1987, and began working as an informer. He was caught in an F.B.I. sting operation in December 1996.
  • You might run into just about anyone at the Library. Famous users have included Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Alfred Kazin, Norman Mailer, Princess Grace (Kelly), Helen Hayes, Frank McCourt, Somerset Maugham, Marlene Dietrich, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, John Updike, Cecil Beaton, Lillian Gish, Tom Wolfe, Francis Ford Coppola, Diana Rigg, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Joe Frazier, and E. L. Doctorow.
  • What have people discovered at the Library? Edward Land developed the process for the Polaroid Land Camera; Chester Carlson researched photoconductivity and electrostatics to invent the Xerox photocopier; Marchette Chute, author of Shakespeare in London, did all her research without ever going to London; and William Roy DeWitt Wallace read and condensed articles that he republished in his magazine, Reader's Digest

Library History Bibliography

Collection Highlights

The collections of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building illuminate and give meaning to our world and draw researchers from all nations to Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. For over a century, librarians in what are now 15 public service and special collections units have sought out authoritative, popular, and ephemeral materials in the humanities, with an emphasis on literature, art, and history.

These remarkable collections are vast, diverse, and not easily characterized. They range from priceless ancient rarities in the Rare Books and the Manuscripts and Archives divisions to current newspapers from all over the world. More than 1,200 languages and dialects, ancient and modern, are represented in the collections.

The uses of the collections are as varied as the items themselves:

  • A historian hears the voices of lost New York in the Dorot Jewish Division's collection of oral histories
  • A novelist finds information to recreate the life of the courts of the Romanov Tsars or of the Iroquois nation in the eighteenth century
  • An antiques collector identifies an old piece of silver from a handbook of hallmarks
  • A journalist locates an accurate map of a formerly obscure city suddenly in the news
  • A museum curator examines beautifully preserved ukiyo-e prints from nineteenth-century Japan
  • A Cuban émigré reads a copy of Diario de la Marina from 1948, preserved on microfilm
  • A literary scholar reviews the manuscripts of Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf, or Jack Kerouac

Also found in the collections of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building:

  • Ninety-eight different novels of pluck and inspiration written by Horatio Alger
  • The pictorial album and unit history of the Enola Gay (509th Composite Group), which dropped the first atomic bomb
  • The earliest known copy of the "Nican Mopohua," a narration of the mystic appearances of Our Lady of Guadalupe to a Mexican peasant in 1531
  • Two copies of the first folio edition of William Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories and Tragedies, published in 1623
  • A complete set of the South Polar Times (1902–11), with editorial contributions by Captain Robert Scott and Sir Ernest Shackleton
  • A near-comprehensive collection of historical Staten Island postcards
  • More than 350 individually cataloged works by George Sand (Aurore Dupin, baronne Dudevant), the preeminent woman writer of French Romanticism
  • "Across the plains to California in 1852," the manuscript journal of Mrs. Lodisa Frizzell

For more information on the collections, visit divisional home pages or scan available LibGuides.