New York Public LibraryAn Amphitheater. A Laptop Bar. It’s a New York Library Like No Other.
By DAVID W. DUNLAP JUNE 20, 2016
Ching-Yen Donahue, the cataloging coordinator at the 53rd Street branch of the New York Public Library.CreditSantiago Mejia/The New York Times More a theater for learning than a citadel of research, the new 53rd Street Library offers one surprise after the next as it unfolds below the sidewalks of New York.
Monday was opening day.
The 53rd Street Library is the long-awaited, long-delayed replacement for the Donnell Library Center, a beloved and heavily used branch of theNew York Public Library system. Donnell was also that increasingly precious thing: a free civic amenity in one of the poshest areas of Manhattan.
It closed in 2008. Its replacement was supposed to be ready in three years, but the redevelopment of the site, between Fifth Avenue and Avenue of the Americas, was derailed by the national economic crisis. Ultimately the library sold the property for $67.4 million in 2011 to Tribeca Associates and Starwood Capital.
Workers installing oak bleachers in the library’s amphitheater. There will be 11 tiers, and they will face a 20-by-9½-foot video screen placed below street-level windows. CreditSantiago Mejia/The New York Times
Above the space set aside for a replacement library, the developers erected a 50-story hotel and apartment tower called the Baccarat, for which the adjective “luxury” scarcely suffices. One condo near the top of this skyscraper sold last year for sold last year for $23,289,760.64.
To put that price in perspective, it cost $23 million to build out the library from the core and shell provided by the developers.
(There is a Building Blocks column to be written about secretive plutocrats buying investment aeries in the sky while public institutions are relegated to basements. Some other day.)
For now, the return of a public library branch ought to be welcomed by residents, office workers and visitors who troop along West 53rd Street on their way to or from the Museum of Modern Art complex. Especially a branch that will be open on Saturdays, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The children’s room at the library has a dramatic, sloping ceiling, paneled in wood veneer. Credit Santiago Mejia/The New York Times
However, the new library, designed by TEN Arquitectos (Taller de Enrique Norten), will not remind them of Donnell - or any other public library in the city.
The first surprise is that its main room is an amphitheater. Eleven tiers of oak bleachers face a 20-by-9 ½-foot video screen placed below street-level windows. Eight people can sit on each tier. Felt cushions will be provided. The video displays will be soundless except during special programs — say, a series of vintage movies about New York City.
The room may remind you of the 10th Avenue Square and Overlook on the High Line in Chelsea. Or the Prada store at Broadway and Prince Street in SoHo.
Overlooking this 34-foot-high space is a laptop bar with 10 “Zeb” stools made by the German company Vitra. I’m betting these will be among the most popular seats in any house in Midtown.
The new library features 22 desktop and 46 laptop computers, along with 381 electrical outlets.CreditSantiago Mejia/The New York Times You can even bring lunch.
“We’re going to allow food,” Genoveve Rodriguez-Stowell, the managing librarian at the 53rd Street branch, said as she and other library officials showed off the space. “We’re going to be progressive.”
Christopher Platt, the library vice president who oversees all 88 branches (soon to be 89), winced slightly hearing about the food policy.
“Only here,” Ms. Rodriguez-Stowell reassured him, at the laptop bar. Mr. Platt looked relieved.
The bleachers descend 17 feet from street level, where the second surprise presents itself, around the corner from the lowermost tier. There is, indeed, a reading room — a large reading room of 11,000 square feet. This is where most of the books are, 20,000 of them for starters. The number will grow.
They are all newly purchased books. Donnell’s specialized research collections have been divided among the Library for the Performing Arts (media), the Mid-Manhattan Library (world languages) and the central research library, now known as the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building Building (children’s material).
All of the books at the 53rd Street Library are new purchases. The specialized research collections that were once housed by the Donnell Library Center were divided among other branches. CreditSantiago Mejia/The New York Times Every book at the 53rd Street branch will circulate, as will audiobooks, DVDs and music CDs.
There are 22 desktop and 46 laptop computers in the branch, but no Macs. There are also 381 electrical outlets. Twenty librarians, assistants and aides will work there full time, assisted by four part-time pages, helping with reshelving.
What looks like the biggest shelf of all, in the center of the main reading room, is in fact the structural core of the Baccarat tower. The New York Public Library owns its space at the base of the tower as a condominium unit, which it was given by the developers.
The next surprise, when walking around the core, is a community meeting room that can accommodate as many as 120 people.
Every time you think there must be no library left, a new space opens up, most dramatically in the children’s room on the second level below ground. Here, TEN Arquitectos took the liability of the bleachers’ underside and turned it into a marvelous asset: a sloping ceiling, paneled in wood veneer.
There really is no fair way to assess the 53rd Street Library until it is full of people and of programs, which library officials promise it will be. Risa Honig, the library vice president for capital planning and construction, put her finger on what a library is at its best, even in a digital age: “A great place to be alone together.”