Renovated NYPL Reopens

John Hill
2. June 2021
Photo © John Bartelstone

The Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library (SNFL), renovated by Mecanoo and Beyer Blinder Belle, celebrated its reopening on June 1st. It is the largest circulating branch among the New York Public Library's (NYPL) 92 locations.

SNFL is located prominently at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, kitty-corner to NYPL's iconic Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, designed in a Beaux-Arts style by Carrère & Hastings in 1911. The former Mid-Manhattan Library opened in 1970 in the old Arnold Constable department store that was built not long after, in 1915. Before the renovation that was completed last year and celebrated its opening yesterday, the most recent renovation to the library was in 1978. For decades the library had a reserved presence behind the six-story stone facade, but Mid-Manhattan's $200 million transformation into SNFL adds to the roof a striking green "Wizard's Hat" — the term coined by Mecanoo's Francine Houben for the perforated-metal enclosure — that hints at the major changes inside.

Ground floor with red carpet running from main entrance at Fifth Avenue to the welcome desk. (Photo: John Hill/World-Architects)

Mecanoo and Beyer Blinder Belle were selected in 2015 to renovate both SNFL and Schwartzman; the first closed entirely to the public during its construction, but the latter — a heavily used research library under normal circumstances — is remaining open (by appointment only, for now) as work on the multi-phase renovation is carried out. SNFL was completed on time last year, but due to the pandemic it could only open, in July 2020, with grab-and-go service on its first floor. As of June 1, 2021, the library now has five of its floors open "for limited browsing," with the three floors at the top of the building "by appointment only" or "coming soon."

Drawing courtesy of Mecanoo

Understanding what is fitted into the library's now eight floors is best grasped in the above rendered building section. New program spaces in the lower level are dedicated to children and teens, connected to the ground floor through two new openings, one of them with a stair. Some books and other items are spread about the generous ground floor, but the three floors above are home to the reading areas, computer workstations, and stacks that have a capacity of 400,000 books and other materials — all that can be checked out. The so-called "Long Room" at the far end of these floors has five levels of browsable stacks next to a 42-foot-high atrium; the two extra floors inserted as mezzanines were possible due to the old building's tall floor-to-floor heights. Continuing upward, the fifth floor is home to the Thomas Yoseloff Business Center, the sixth floor contains the Pasculano Learning Center, and the new rooftop level has programming space indoors and an outdoor terrace with a stunning view toward the Schwarzman Building and the tall buildings surrounding Bryant Park.

New openings spatially connect the lower children and teen areas to the ground floor. (Photo: John Hill/World-Architects)
Huge tables with lots of seating — double the capacity of Mid-Manhattan but currently off limits due to the pandemic — are provided on floors two through four; the tables wrap existing columns but are also located by at the perimeter next to windows. (Photo: John Hill/World-Architects)

In terms of the collaboration between Delft, Netherland's Mecanoo and New York's Beyer Blinder Belle, Mecanoo, under founding partner Francine Houben, led the design stages, while Beyer Blinder Belle, under managing partner Elizabeth Leber, led the historic preservation of the building and acted as architect of record.

The ceiling of the Long Room features a specially commissioned artwork by Hayal Pozanti as a puzzle-like composition that illustrates an invented alphabet; its scale (85 feet long) approaches that of the famous Rose Main Reading Room in the Schwarzman Building and can be seen as a modern take on it. (Photo: John Hill/World-Architects)
The five floors of stacks in the Long Room are reached by bridges, an elevator, and a stair behind glass that should encourage able-bodied people to stay fit and walk between levels. New windows in the far end of the atrium were added where the building abuts a small pocket park. (Photo: John Hill/World-Architects)

The library is named for the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, which gave a $55 million grant in 2017 toward the branch's transformation; the balance of the cost came from New York City. The $200 million project comprises the "biggest physical project" in the library's 126-year history.

Not yet open to the public, the new rooftop has flexible programming space indoors and a wraparound roof terrace with great views — all free and accessible once COVID-19 protocols allow it. (Photo: John Hill/World-Architects)
The view toward the library's "main branch" and the buildings surrounding Bryant Park from the rooftop will be just one thing that will attract people to the new SNFL. (Photo: John Hill/World-Architects)

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