After years of delay, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission voted unanimously to designate as interior landmarks two magnificent, Beaux-Arts style rooms in the New York Public Library (NYPL) at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. If approved by the City Council, the Rose Main Reading and Bill Blass Catalog Rooms, both recently restored, will join the building’s exterior, designated a landmark in 1967, and the library’s operatic entry halls and stairs, designated in 1974, to form a protected central sequence from the busy street to the serenity of the nearly two-block-long reading room on the third floor.
There was wide public support for designation of 13 library interiors, so the designation of only two leaves many significant rooms in the celebrated 1911 building by Carrère and Hastings without landmark protection, as Mecanoo and Beyer Blinder Belle ready plans for a major renovation.
The campaign for landmark designation sprang from the fierce controversy surrounding Foster + Partners 2012 plan to replace the library’s book stacks - an engineering marvel - with what some characterized as an internet café. A public outcry defeated this plan, but NYPL’s willingness to gut so much of its city-owned building alarmed preservationists.
Already, some groups are planning to renew their requests for designation of the eleven rooms ignored by the Landmark Commission’s recent action. But none of these requests for landmark designation include the book stacks, which were emptied of nearly three million books in 2013. This vast labyrinth of shelves has never been open to the public, so it is not eligible for city landmark protection. The New York City Landmark Commission has little power to save the stacks, their preservation is entrusted to the NYPL and its landlord, the City of New York.