The Hidden History of the New York Public Library

new york public library

Officially known as the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, the Main Branch of the New York Public Library has occupied a special place in New Yorkers’ hearts for over a century now. Renowned for its dramatic Beaux Arts architecture and richly-decorated interior, the New York Public Library’s main branch anchors the second-largest library system in the United States after only the Library of Congress and also boasts a number of historic artifacts and cultural treasures. Few people, however, know the secrets of the library’s history, such as what used to occupy the site before its construction or the names of the iconic lions that rest outside its main entrance. Here’s a quick look at the hidden history of the Main Branch of the New York Public Library.

Before the establishment of the New York Public Library, the city had several smaller libraries consisting of private collections in various locations. The library itself was established in 1895 and formally consolidated with the collections of politician Samuel Tilden and businessman and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie in 1901. However, the new library lacked a central location for all of its books, manuscripts, artifacts and other holdings. It was decided that a large main branch in a centralized location would only suit the prestigious and sprawling new library system.

The obsolete Croton Reservoir in what is today Bryant Park was selected as the new location for the library’s main branch.  The grand Beaux Arts design of architecture firm Carrere and Hastings was selected after a design competition and construction began in earnest in May 1902.

Work on the library branch progressed slowly and cost a then-staggering sum of $9 million dollars. The library’s main entrance was flanked by two lions originally named Leo Astor and Lenox Astor after the library’s founders, but nicknamed “Patience” and “Fortitude” by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia in the 1930s, as he felt both were needed to help New Yorkers persevere in the Great Depression that gripped the nation at that time. The new building was finally inaugurated on May 23, 1911 in a ceremony presided over by President Taft and various state and local officials. The library opened to the public the following day and met with rave reviews.

Since then, the library has become a cultural icon of New York City and has been the location of many film and TV shoots. It was officially named the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building in 2008 to reflect the philanthropic gift of investor Stephen A. Schwarzman to help with its renovation. The facade of the newly-renovated building was unveiled in 2011, just in time for its centennial anniversary. The building has also been designated an official New York City Landmark and named a National Historic Landmark, reflecting its importance to both New York City and the United States.

For over 100 years now, the New York Public Library’s main branch has been a cultural treasure of New York City. It’s striking architecture, vast collection of important books and documents and importance in pop culture have helped to cement its status as one of New York City’s most recognized and important landmarks.