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The New York Public Library might be a system of libraries, but its most famous building, the Stephen A. Schwarzman building (also known as the main branch) is one of the city’s finest landmarks.
Built on 42nd St. and Fifth Avenue in the early 20th century, it has truly stood the test of time; a Manhattan icon that fills Instagram feeds and magazines to this day. It’s been showcased in several movies and denotes a feeling of New York that’s impossible to imitate.
Construction was officially completed in 1911, and the city has made extensive efforts to maintain its original appeal. While there have been regular upgrades and renovations, New York Public Library is keen on keeping a sense of the building’s contribution to the city intact.
Here are five interesting facts about the library and why it means so much to New York City and the United States.
The Largest Marble Building Ever Built (at the Time)
When construction was complete, the Stephen A. Schwarzman building was the largest American marble building ever finished. Its completion included some staggering building facts.
The cornerstone laid in 1902 weighed in at 7.5 tons, and the exterior marble walls were twelve inches thick. Builders sourced white Vermont marble for the job, using over 530,000 cubic feet of marble on the library.
That’s more than six times what was used to construct the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) and the local chamber of commerce combined. Even the floors are created from beautiful marble, like the countertops you find in your home.
At the time, the floors were felt to be too hard, so library employees were all issued rubber-soled shoes to cut down on noise and help their feet to be more comfortable. The size and scale of the job still makes it a star for marble lovers.
In a time where speed and affordability dominated building plans, the library stands out as a beacon for quality and timeless architecture. It’s lasted over one hundred years, and people will continue to be able to appreciate its beauty for decades to come.
Miles and Miles of Book Stacks
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The New York Public Library isn’t the largest collection of books in the world (the largest include the British Library in the UK, Library of Congress in the USA, and Shanghai Library in China, though the New York Public Library then comes in closely after that!), but its stats are still impressive. The iconic book stacks are said to include around 125 miles of shelving space.
The Stacks are beautiful in themselves, and even contribute to supporting the structural integrity of the building. There are 37 miles of steel stack book shelves underneath Bryant Park that help support the main reading room.
At one point the managers of the New York Public Library caused controversy when the stacks underground were all found to be empty. Apparently, there were so many old books that were unused they began to rot.
Officials said the books started to put off an awful smell, and that the room did not have enough climate control to keep the books well. Indeed, the building’s book management system has struggled in recent years as more people turn away from physical books to digital editions.
Until Recently, the Building Still Used Pneumatic Tubes
Up until the 1980’s the library used a system of pneumatic tubes to delivery requests for books. Patrons would fill out a paper request for a book, and the paper was sent down to the stack levels through a system of tubes.
After receiving the request, library staff underground would set about locating the book and delivering it upstairs. Some parts of the library used pneumatic tubes to look up books and deliver requests for decades beyond the 1980’s because of their efficiency and simplicity.
Books were often delivered on a conveyor belt that fed requested books into areas of the library that needed them. In 2016, a book train replaced the conveyor belt system.
Facilities to Store Priceless Collectibles
Collectors love to have their valuables kept safely, but also want to give people access so they can be admired. The New York Public Library has facilities necessary to keep priceless collectibles safe and in mint condition.
Among the library’s most notable possessions are over 40,000 restaurant menus, many of them historic, Truman Capote’s cigarette case, and a 1493 copy of Christopher Columbus’ letter on his discovery of the new world.
Facilities that house rare documents need to be controlled for temperature, humidity and exposure to light. They also need to have security features so that anyone with bad intentions can’t get to them.
Enormous Amounts of Coal Used for Heating
Believe it or not, the library went through massive piles of coal to keep it warm and toasty.
Anyone who’s been to New York City knows that it can be downright miserable in the winter ... and just think about winter trapped inside a building made out of marble. The marble likely made it seem even chillier inside the library at times.
To keep things warm, the city used over 20 tons, yes tons, of coal each day for heat. It was delivered and the ashes were carted away on a daily basis. A good temperature kept the library busy and patrons happy.
The library was often a refuge for people in the city. After the 1929 stock market crash, the winter was one of the library’s busiest periods in its history. The main reading room often had upwards of 1,000 people inside perusing materials just for the warmth.
The world’s most famous city has a tourist to-do list longer than the east coast, but for those returning to New York City, or who like to go off the beaten path a little bit, why not take in the New York Public Library?
Once you’ve ticked off The Statue of Liberty, Times Square, Central Park and everything else the guide books list for you, do check out some of the more hidden gems throughout the city.