A Place Of Grandeur

This is not a book you take to bed, nor read cover-to-cover: “The New York Public Library: The Architecture and Decoration of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building.” Rather, this new edition of Henry Hope Reed’s 1986 magisterial book is for leafing through, for admiring Anne Day’s glorious photographs of the materials, symmetries and details that give the library its grandeur, and for stopping here and there to learn more about a staircase, a hanging lantern or a flagpole base. The library is, of course, one of New York City’s great landmarks and for a hundred years its civic intellectual heart. The enormous building — the largest marble structure in the country when it opened in 1911 — is a Beaux Arts confection of columns, cornices, terraces and balustrades, grand stairways and large arches, vaults and pediments. As Reed and co-author Francis Marrone point out, architects in 1911 were also interior designers. So John Carrere and Thomas Hastings, who won the competition to build the library, supervised the whole shebang: They selected the marble in Vermont, reproduced a huge lantern from Versailles, decorated banisters with Greek key carving. And while the exterior is not as perfect as the former Custom House in lower Manhattan nor the interior as sumptuous as the Library of Congress, both were plenty grand for the private philanthropists who underwrote the building. And why not. Carrere and Hastings — whose grand mansion, Bellefontaine, in Lenox, MA, is now the centerpiece of Canyon Ranch Spa — lavished attention to detail on every aspect of the project. Take the two magnificent flagpole bases that flank the main entrance on the Fifth Avenue terrace. The authors write that these “encyclopedias of classical ornament” recall pagan altars boasting heads of sacrificial cattle, garlands to adorn the beasts and skulls. Then there are seahorses and cornucopias. Life-size, winged figures — Navigation, Discovery, Conquest, Civilization — are at each corner. (Note the imperial condescension of conquest leading to civilization.) Each base rests on the backs of four turtles. They look magnificent in Day’s images. In fact it is Day’s photographs that make the book. Neither Reed nor Marrone are literary stylists. They are frequently turgid, too detailed: Cartouche meets canephorus in the same room with rinceaux, which are found in better examples “on the garden terrace of Vignola’s Casino at Caprarola, Italy.” Who knew? But I carp. After a week with the book, I still find the photographs mesmerizing and the information — no matter how gracelessly presented — fascinating. And I'm no longer so offended by the name Stephen A. Schwarzman newly chiseled on either side of the main entrance. The authors remind us that every room in the library is named for a benefactor: Dewitt Wallace, John J. Astor, Bill Blass; Rose and Salomon and Gottesman. And at least those faithful marble lions, Patience and Fortitude, never change. Anne Day will sign copies of “The New York Public Library” at Johnnycake Books, 12 Academy St. in Salisbury, on Saturday, June 18, from 5 to 7 p.m.

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