Exploring the New York Public Library

As I’m a voracious reader and lover of books and libraries, the New York Public Library – and specifically the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building – is one of my favorite places in New York City. Although the library now has annexes all over the city, this building, which first opened to the public in 1911, is the one that most people associate with the NYPL. Today, I thought I’d take you on a tour of the library.

Here’s our view as we get ready to cross Fifth Avenue and approach the main entrance to the building. As you can see, the building is an example of Beaux-Arts architecture. Doesn’t it look promising as we approach?

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As we cross the street, we see the famous library lions. Since the 1930s, they’ve been known by the names Patience and Fortitude.

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During the Christmas season, the lions wear evergreen wreaths studded with pinecones and trimmed with a red bow.

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On either side of the main entrance are magnificent fountains. If you look closely, you may be able to see the netting that prevents birds from perching on the statues.

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Make sure you look around as we go through the entrance. The details on the huge bronze doors are incredible, and the arched ceiling of the portico is also magnificent.

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We’ve entered into the grand Astor Hall. The white marble reflects the light shining through the front windows.

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Here’s one of my favorite details in the entire library – a small marble plaque set into Astor Hall’s floor. The plaque remembers Martin Radtke, a Lithuanian immigrant to the United States who educated himself during regular visits to the library over the course of his life. Upon Martin’s death in 1973, the library discovered that he had left his savings to the library – $368,000 in all. How special that he has been honored in this way.

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There’s so much more to see as we explore the library’s many rooms and corridors. Can you imagine sitting at one of the tables for a while, reading a book you’ve requested from one of the librarians? If you have the time, we can catch up on some news in the periodicals reading room, or explore an atlas in the Map Division reading room. And there’s so many interesting architectural details and art to experience as well. Don’t forget to look up! The ceilings display more fine craftsmanship.

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Periodically throughout the hallways you may spy these lions along the wall, remnants of the original water fountain system. You can’t get a drink of water from these fountains today, but they are still fun to see.

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One of the most impressive rooms in the library is the Rose Reading Room, which stretches the length of a football field. The Rose Reading Room has just reopened after a lengthy restoration process. The ceilings are beautiful in this room as well, and there are so many other interesting architectural details to explore.

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Let’s not forget to head down to the ground floor. As we exit the elevator, we spy this rare artifact: a set of pay phone booths! Unsurprisingly, none of them are in use.

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And then we come to the library’s Children’s Center. The entrance to the Children’s Center is guarded by lions as well, although these two are made of Lego blocks.

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The Children’s Center is a magical place, with a mural of various New York City landmarks stretching around the room.

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Best of all there are the original stuffed animals that inspired author A. A. Milne to write the children’s book Winnie the Pooh.

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I hope that you enjoyed our tour. There are even more treasures to be discovered if you visit the New York Public Library for yourself. The library even offers free tours on a daily basis. The Stephen A. Schwarzman Building is located on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, between 40th and 42nd Streets. (Yes, the building stretches the length of two city blocks – but the short blocks!)

A personal note: I wrote this post as a tribute to a wonderful friend and family member that we lost this week. Roy lived an incredible life, full of love and family adventures. His wife Rosie, my cousin, has become a close friend as we’ve collaborated on family history projects. Roy had lost his eyesight over the years, but he still participated in numerous book clubs and loved to read. He was one of those special people who are life-long learners. Somehow, writing about a library seemed like the perfect way to honor his memory as his family prepares to celebrate his life tomorrow.

The Morgan Library: Book Lover’s Paradise

As a book lover, I’ve always loved libraries. And the older the books, the better! That’s why I so enjoy visiting the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City.

Modern entrance to Morgan Library & Museum, with Morgan home to the left
Modern entrance to Morgan Library & Museum, with Morgan’s home to the left

The Morgan Library’s founder, Pierpont Morgan (also sometimes referred to as J.P. Morgan) was a powerful financier in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the 1890s, Morgan began collecting rare books, gems, art, and other items for his own personal collection. By 1902, Morgan realized that he needed a special place to house his collection. His solution was to build a free-standing library next to his home in New York City, designed by architect Charles McKim. After Pierpont Morgan’s death in 1913, his son J.P. Morgan, Jr. ultimately decided to turn the library into a public institution in 1924, open to visitors, and he further enlarged the space to house more exhibitions.

My favorite part of the library is Pierpont Morgan’s original library space, which is comprised of three main rooms, a vault, and an entrance hall. First, let’s look at a few details from the entrance hall, known as the Rotunda. You’ll spend a lot of time looking up in this room, as the ceilings are detailed and magnificent.

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Here is Pierpont Morgan’s study. The room’s perimeter is cloaked in low, enclosed bookcases that display various small sculptures. Above the bookcases, the walls are covered with a rich red patterned wallpaper. There are a number of paintings which, like the sculptures, are part of Morgan’s original art collection. The ceiling is intricately carved dark wood, and there is an imposing fireplace opposite Morgan’s desk.

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In front of the fireplace is this copy of the Book of Hours, a medieval prayer book with beautiful hand illustrations. The description said it is from approximately 1460.

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Just through a doorway from the study is the vault, where Morgan kept many of his most prized items. Today, it is mostly for display, but some of the books on the shelves are ones that Morgan commissioned to catalogue his collections. It was a fascinating room, with an upper level that’s only accessible from a ladder and narrow metal mezzanine. (The upper level isn’t visible from this photo, unfortunately – I couldn’t get a good angle to take a photo of it.)

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The Librarian’s Office is a smaller space, but still very interesting. It’s two stories tall, with a mezzanine level packed with books. The exhibitions in this room are fascinating – among them, pieces of cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia, approximately 2000 to 3000 years old, and ancient Mesopotamian cylinder seals, with examples of their imprints. (Make sure that you look up in the Library’s Office as well, as it has an amazing painted ceiling.

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Finally, there’s the Library itself. This room is impressive, with its double mezzanine, detailed walls, and stone fireplace.

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In the  Rotunda and Library’s cases are just a few more examples of the breadth of Pierpont Morgan’s collections, such as a life mask of George Washington, first President of the United States; a copy of the original edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass; a letter written by nineteenth-century mathematician Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, who is often credited with founding modern scientific computing; the draft copy of several chapters of English poet Siegfried Sassoon’s memoir about his military experiences during World War I; and the manuscript of John Keats’s Endymion, dated 1818. There is also this portion of the 1771 manuscript of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Symphony No. 15 in F Major.

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As well as this copy of the Gutenberg Bible (actually just one volume of the two volume set), one of three copies that are part of Morgan’s collection. These Bibles were part of the first set of books printed with movable type in 1455, signaling the beginning of mass printing of books. What’s amazing is that fewer than 50 full and partial copies of the Gutenberg Bible still exist today (there were originally 180 printed), and Morgan collected three of those.

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Modern additions to the Library have added additional exhibition spaces which host a variety of excellent temporary exhibitions. There are two dining options as well: a casual cafe, and a second restaurant, located in the Morgan family’s original home, which draws inspiration from New York dining options in the early twentieth century. Don’t forget to check out the Library’s gift shop. If you need a gift for someone who loves books (or are looking for a unique souvenir for yourself), you will find endless unique items there.

Are you a book lover who would like to visit the Morgan Library & Museum yourself? The Library is located 225 Madison Avenue (the cross street is 36th Street). Numerous subway lines stop within several blocks. If traveling by subway, you can take the 6 train to 33rd Street; the B, D, F, or Q to 42nd Street or 34th Street; the M, N, or R to 34th Street; or the 4, 5, 6, or 7 to Grand Central Terminal. If coming from outside the city, you can take the PATH train to 33rd Street or other trains that go to Grand Central. There are also several buses that stop at 34th Street, including the M2, M3, M4, and Q32 (Going uptown, the bus stops are on Madison Avenue; going downtown, they stop instead one block over on Fifth Avenue. Going downtown, the M4 stops at 37th instead of 34th.)