January 24, 2014

New York State says it is OK to destroy famed library, as long as they take pictures first


NYPL exteriorA closed-door decision in December by the office overseeing New York State’s historic preservation efforts has officially permitted The New York Public Library to proceed with its plan to demolish the 42nd Street Library’s famed book stacks—provided it documents what it destroys. The stacks until recently held millions of volumes in the library’s humanities research collection.

As Scott Sherman reports in The Nation:

in a decision formulated behind closed doors, the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation green-lighted the New York Public Library’s request to demolish seven levels of book stacks inside the main branch of the 42nd Street Library. But first, the corpse must be prepared for burial: before proceeding with the demolition, the NYPL was instructed to hire an archaeologist or historian to document, via photography and archival evidence, the stacks designed by Carrère and Hastings, which were hailed as marvels of engineering when they were unveiled in 1911.

The decision is a major blow to critics of NYPL’s “Central Library Plan,” which not only calls for the historic stacks to be removed, but for large potions of the research collection to be moved to off-site storage in New Jersey, the sale of two major library facilities, and the construction of a costly new structure inside the historic 42nd Street Library.

The approval of the NYPL’s plan is not likely to be further challenged in Albany, either: a major political opponent of the Central Library Plan and a powerful ally of the library’s critics, Micah Kellner, was removed from his position as chairman of the Committee on Libraries and Education Technology in late December, after a state assembly ethics investigation found that Kellner had sexually harassed staff members.

Two lawsuits currently winding through the courts currently preclude the library from beginning any actual demolition work. In a late December court hearing, the library agreed to wait until January 28th to begin any demolition or construction work.

But time would appear to be running out for one the few people presumably still in a position to save the stacks: New York mayor Bill de Blasio, who as Public Advocate came out against the library’s plans.

What should the mayor do? According the Nation’s Sherman:

He should redirect the $150 million in capital funds the Bloomberg administration allocated to the CLP. A portion of that money should be used to upgrade the ventilation system in the stacks, which, until recently, held 3 million books. (All of the books must be returned to the stacks.) Some of the money should be given to the branch libraries. The rest could revitalize the Mid-Manhattan Library—an idea put forth by architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable in her final published essay: “Let Foster+Partners loose on the Mid-Manhattan building; the results will be spectacular, and probably no more costly than the extravagant and destructive plan the library has chosen.”

Update: there is a flicker of challenge from Albany in Brad Hoylman, who represents Manhattan’s 27th district. Yesterday, he posted a letter he sent to Mayor de Blasio on his website, which encourages the mayor to intervene in the library’s plans.



Kelly Burdick is the executive editor of Melville House.