The New York Public Library Celebrates Its 108th Anniversary


Native New Yorker or not, entering the main branch of the New York Public Library—the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building at 476 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan—is perpetually awe-inspiring.

Dedicated on May 23, 1911, the Carrère and Hastings-designed building has since been regarded as a Beaux-Arts masterpiece. However, the idea for the landmark began decades prior to its opening. When former New York governor Samuel J. Tilden died in 1886, he left approximately .4 million for the formation of a public library in New York, which by then had developed a population larger than that of Paris, France—no small feat for a country just over 100 years old. To make New York a truly great city, however, Tilden believed it also needed a strong library.

Two public libraries already existed in New York at the time: the Astor library, opened in 1849, housed in the current space of the Public Theatre in the East Village; and the Lenox library, built in 1877, at the current location of The Frick Collection on the Upper East Side. The libraries, however, were fairly difficult to use as they did not allow books to circulate and had limited hours or required written permission for admission. By the end of the 19th century, the Astor and Lenox found themselves struggling. And so in 1895, the two combined their resources with the Tilden Trust to develop The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

It would be another seven years before the NYPL’s cornerstone was laid in 1902. New Yorkers at the time loved to stroll along what was then the Croton Reservoir, which was the chosen site for the new library. The reservoir had to first be taken apart, and the construction itself after would become the largest marble structure ever attempted in the United States. Over the next nine years, the interiors were crafted and 75 miles of bookshelves were installed. The exterior included the now-iconic marble Library Lions sculptures, originally named Leo Astor and Leo Lenox (but later renamed Patience and Fortitude by NYC Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia during the Great Depression). U.S. President William Howard Taft led the library’s dedication ceremony in 1911, and the next day the new library drew between 30,000 to 50,000 visitors.

The main branch of NYPL on Fifth Avenue has remained an esteemed New York institution since then. It houses priceless objects from literature and history, like George Washington’s handwritten farewell address; two first folio editions of Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories and Tragedies, from in 1623; a Gutenberg Bible, complete collections of fashion magazines from the time they were first printed, and countless others. It has also been a backdrop for beloved films like Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), The Wiz (1978), and Spider-Man (2002), among others. It plays host to collections of rare books, photography, maps, Judaica, and even the digital Berg Fashion Library. Keeping fashion history alive, the Berg Fashion Library is a comprehensive collection of fashion books, images, and articles from around the world. And just like black flats, a crisp white shirt, and a tan trench coat, the library itself is a perpetual classic.


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