Books in the Basement
Midtown Manhattan’s new library falls short of what a world-class city should provide to its citizens.
I am writing this essay from the basement of the Baccarat Hotel, the awkward 605-foot crystal-and-marble confection on West 53rd Street that opened last year. The Baccarat, which is owned by a Chinese insurance company, made news in December when two prostitutes allegedly stole a $600,000 watch from a drunken john. Why am I here? In one of the worst decisions made by a local public institution in decades, the New York Public Library has squirreled away its newest branch in the basement of this luxury tower.
The new library, which opened Monday, replaces the Donnell Library Center. The NYPL shuttered the Donnell nearly eight years ago, handing it over to the Baccarat’s developers for demolition. As Scott Sherman reports in his 2015 book, Patience and Fortitude: Power, Real Estate, and the Fight to Save a Public Library, the old library was built with funds donated by Ezekiel Donnell, a nineteenth-century cotton merchant, who wanted it to become a “fireproof building” where “young people can spend their evenings profitably away from demoralizing influences” (such as people who hire watch-stealing prostitutes). John D. Rockefeller, Jr., donated the land, across the street from the Museum of Modern Art. Architects designed a four-story limestone building similar to the lower floors of the Rockefeller Center towers, three blocks to the south.
Donnell, an Irish immigrant, died in 1896; his widow and daughter lived off his fortune until well into the twentieth century. When they died, the $2.5 million Donnell Library Center was built. It opened in 1955 and was an immediate a success. The New York Times lauded it as “a real showpiece . . . thoroughly contemporary in design and appointments.” The branch was “bright and cheerful,” with “warmth and comfort,” too. The Times pointed out amenities that library patrons would continue to enjoy into the new millennium: the Donnell’s nearly 300,000-book capacity, and its special collections for “the foreign language reader” and “the music lover” (and, later, for film lovers).
By the mid-2000s, the Donnell had built up half a century of character. The original stuffed animals that inspired A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh books were on display in the children’s room. Donnell was always packed with adults and children browsing, studying, or reading. What the Times had said in its initial assessment was still true: the Donnell was “a haven from the noisy, bustling world just outside.”
In the first decade of the twenty-first century, though, the NYPL’s managers and trustees saw in Donnell not an austere and elegant oasis from Midtown’s skyscrapers, but a “poor, shabby neighbor,” as then-library chief Paul LeClerc said in 2007. The Donnell’s interior certainly needed an upgrade, but the work should have been straightforward. The city was at the tail end of the biggest economic boom in its history. Income-tax revenues had grown from $5.3 billion annually in 1999—the previous peak—to $8.2 billion. The library, which has its own independent board but which depends on the city for much of its financing, should have outlined the tens of millions it would need for a renovation, raised some money from philanthropists, and got the rest from the city. Instead, as Sherman writes, “the Donnell became a real-estate commodity.” In 2007, LeClerc and his board decided to sell the land to a hotel developer. The developer, in turn, would raze the branch, build the tower, and hand over the uncompleted basements and a small portion of the first floor back to the library.
Sherman questions the philosophy behind this deal. It sprung, he writes, from a strategy to “monetiz[e] non-core assets,” pushed by a board made up of high-profile people from the real-estate and financial worlds. Why the library board and its management considered a perfectly functional and well-used branch to be “non-core” is a mystery. Public institutions should serve as a kind of counter-cyclical buffer against other forces. It’s still possible—or should be possible—for a low-rise building to nestle between super-tall towers without the sky above being seen as a wasted opportunity cost. It should have been possible, too, for library trustees and managers to grasp the difference between the private sector and the public sector. Real-estate firms and financial firms should undertake complex, risky, real-estate and financial transactions; they shouldn’t lend books. Libraries should lend books; they shouldn’t undertake complex, risky, real-estate and financial transactions.
NYPL managers knew that its constituents wouldn’t like the Donnell plan. Sherman reports that the library managers waited as long as possible—until the developer that had purchased the land needed to file its own disclosure document—to break the news. The library hired a crisis-PR team to help with this task. It hired New Yorker critic Paul Golderberger, too, for a “consulting fee” and a little extra PR insurance.
Even if one agrees with the notion that a modest four-story building is wasted space, the library made a terrible deal. The sale netted it $67 million. But the library then had to spend $23 million outfitting the new branch in the basement (MoMA is working with developers on yet another tall tower next to the existing museum, but MoMA will keep the first three floors as galleries). Years of delay frittered away much of the rest of the money, as the NYPL had to operate a temporary branch several blocks away.
All told, the museum likely earned an annual “profit” of about $3 million over eight years for the loss of the use of this critical facility—eight years in which children who were in kindergarten when Donnell closed grew to become nearly teenagers. Plus, smart investors buy Manhattan land; they don’t sell it. A few decades from now, the new branch will need renovations. The library can’t sell its land again. The owners of the condos and hotel above are now “monetizing” New York’s core asset.
What of the new branch, which has lost the Donnell name and is now just called the 53rd Street branch? The building and materials are new. Its clean wooden floors shine. Its white shelves and never-before-read books look and smell nice. Architects ably designed the space for today’s workers. Fast wifi and ample cubicles, desks, and plugs are available on the first basement floor. Dozens of New Yorkers were busily working there on Tuesday. Even as construction workers drilled and talked, library patrons were quiet. The space’s designers crafted a calming environment, with cubicle padding and chairs that don’t screech when you move them. The library is a perfectly pleasant place to write. Its like borrowing a desk at someone’s office when working out of town. On the second basement floor, toddlers and children were already reading and playing in their new room, perusing Madeline and Curious George titles (Winnie the Pooh, Piglet, and Tigger were nowhere to be found; they live now at the main research library on 42nd Street).
The new library branch would be a proud civic achievement in a small, wealthy suburb. But New York is not a small, wealthy suburb. It deserves better. Unlike the Donnell, most of the new underground library has no natural light. Space for books is limited, because of the real constraints of being in a basement that wasn’t the hotel developer’s priority. The library is less than a third of Donnell’s size. What looks like a massive internal space for bookshelves, for example, is an underpinning of the skyscraper above.
The bookshelves that surround that support structure create an illusion of plenty. But it’s just an illusion. The NYPL has dispensed with almost all of the Donnell’s books. Just 20,000 are on site, a mere 7 percent of the previous holdings. Browsing the 53rd Street branch is more like browsing a bookstore that doesn’t have the room or the money to offer an interesting inventory. The Donnell’s specialized holdings in film, music, and foreign language aren’t coming back; the NYPL dispersed them to other branches. Yes, you can order any book or film you want from any branch you want, and pick it up here, quite conveniently. But a library isn’t an Amazon dropbox.
The title of Sherman’s book reminds us that it could be worse. Patience and Fortitude are the names of the two lions who sit by the steps of the 105-year-old main research library on 42nd Street. Not far from the research library are the Mid-Manhattan branch—the system’s main lending library—and the Science, Industry, and Business Library. LeClerc and his successor, Tony Marx, until recently wanted to do to these three buildings what they did to Donnell: close them, sell them, and use some of the proceeds to gut the seven-story book “stacks” of the research library, where they would build a post-Donnell “space.”
The people who use New York’s libraries couldn’t save the Donnell, but they did help save the research library and the Mid-Manhattan branch. Famous authors, amateur scholars, journalists, and romance-novel addicts, all wrote and spoke out against this “Central Library Plan,” persistently and consistently. In 2012, Ada Louise Huxtable, the Wall Street Journal’s 91-year-old architecture critic, devoted her last-ever article before she died to excoriating the plan. “This is a plan devised out of a profound ignorance of or willful disregard for not only the library’s original concept and design, but also the folly of altering its meaning and mission and compromising its historical and architectural integrity,” she wrote. “You don’t ‘update’ a masterpiece.” New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman also slammed the proposal. In City Journal, the Manhattan Institute’s Stephen Eide wrote that were the plan to go forward, “scholarship, education, and our cultural inheritance would all suffer.” A 2013 state assembly hearing attracted hundreds of attendees, virtually all of them against turning a storied research institution into a bland lobby—and losing two branches, too.
The well-reasoned protest mattered. “The NYPL was rescued in large part by independent scholars and writers” in a battle of “words and ideas” against “big money,” writes Sherman. But the library saviors had another powerful force on their side: the worst recession in modern history. The global economic crisis of 2008 bought valuable time for those seeking to stop the Central Library Plan. The recession harmed the NYPL’s prospects of getting decent prices for the two Midtown branches. As the years passed, it became obvious that the library couldn’t deliver what it had promised at Donnell, a project that Marx has now admitted was a mistake. Time brought a new mayor, too; Bill de Blasio, unlike Michael Bloomberg, didn’t support the library overhaul. In 2014, Marx killed the plan that he and his predecessor had championed.
But bad ideas persist in a still-toxic political and cultural environment. Today, de Blasio supports a Donnell-style plan proposed by the Brooklyn Public Library (a separately managed institution from the NYPL). The BPL wants to sell its Brooklyn Heights branch to a condo developer. Federal investigators are looking into the deal, as the chosen developer donated heavily to de Blasio. Though the NYPL is renovating and keeping its Mid-Manhattan branch, it still wants to close the Science, Industry, and Business Library, which is used by hundreds of students and entrepreneurs every day.
Again, public institutions should be countercyclical. A young person has nearly unlimited options for shopping or eating in Midtown. But how many places does he have to work on his computer, without having to buy coffee or vacate after 45 minutes? And just this summer, de Blasio and the City Council boasted of having guaranteed six-day-a-week library service in perpetuity. As if poor kids in the richest city in the world should be happy not to have to beg their local politicians every spring for the right to read on Saturdays.
The 1970s were “a traumatic decade for the NYPL,” Sherman writes, as budget cuts curtailed hours and services. Back then, author Barbara Tuchman suggested that the library barrier itself off with turnstiles and require patrons to pay a fare. The NYPL had an excuse for turning inward while New York was falling apart. Today, with a record population and record tax revenues, what is the city’s excuse for asking people to be happy that they’ve been relegated to the basement?
Photo by shironosov/iStock
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