New York Public Library Main Entrance, New York City

The main entrance to the New York Public Library at 5th Avenue and 41st Street, around 1911-1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The scene in 2019:

As discussed in an earlier post, the main branch of the New York Public Library was completed here in 1911, on the west side of 5th Avenue between 40th and 42nd Streets. It was designed by the noted architectural firm of Carrère and Hastings, and it features an ornate Beaux-Arts exterior. Here on 5th Avenue, the main entrance consists of three archways, each flanked by a pair of Corinthian columns. Six statues stand above the entrance, and there are also others closer to the ground, including in the alcoves on the left and right, and the lions on either side of the stairway.

The first photo was evidently taken soon after the building was opened, because not all of the statues were installed by this point. The lions, designed by sculptor Edward Clark Potter, were here, but the statues in the alcoves—Beauty and Truth by Frederick William MacMonnies—had yet to be added. Above the entrance, a lonely statue stands on the far right side in the first photo, although it would later be joined by the other five figures.

Today, more than a century after the first photo was taken, the sidewalk in front of the library is significantly more crowded, as is the skyline in the distance. However, the library has remained standing throughout this time, with hardly an exterior changes in this scene aside from the additional statuary. Over the years, the lions have become probably the most recognizable feature here at the main entrance, and they have since come to represent the library itself, even appearing in its logo. The building itself remains in use as one of the world’s largest libraries, and in 1965 it was designated as a National Historic Landmark because of its architectural and historical significance.

Fifth Avenue from 42nd Street, New York City (2)

The view looking south on Fifth Avenue from 42nd Street, with the New York Public Library on the right side, around 1912. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The view in 2016:

This view is similar to an earlier post, with the only difference being that it is a little further back and angled further to the right. The first photo here was probably taken around the same time as the one in this previous post, as they both show the Taft-Sherman campaign banner across Fifth Avenue in the distance. Based on the fact that the trees to the right don’t have many leaves left, the photo was probably taken in the fall of 1912, maybe in late October or the first week of November.

President Taft had actually visited this location about a year and a half earlier, when he presided over the opening ceremonies for the New York Public Library. Today, not much has changed in this exterior view of the library building. Another building still standing from the first photo is the Knox Hat Building, in the center of the photo at the corner of 40th Street. This incredibly ornate building was designed by architect John H. Duncan and completed in 1902 for the Knox Hat Company, who used the first two floors for retail space and had offices in the upper floors. It was later used as a bank, and it is now owned by HSBC. They combined it with the modern glass skyscraper behind it, but the historic building still retains its distinctive appearance.

Fifth Avenue Near 42nd Street, New York City

Looking south on Fifth Avenue in New York City from in front of the New York Public Library, between 41st and 42nd Streets, around 1910-1915. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroi Publishing Company Collection.

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Fifth Avenue in 2016:

The first photo is blurry and somewhat out of focus, which gives a busy, chaotic feel to the picture as blurred cars speed past the pedestrians on the crowded sidewalks. Not much has changed in that regard in the past century, and even many of the buildings from the first photo are still standing. There is a good number of modern skyscrapers in this scene, but interspersed with them is a variety of early 20th century commercial buildings.

Some of the historic buildings in the present-day scene include the Knox Hat Building on the far right, at the corner of 42nd Street. Built in 1902, this 10-story building housed a company that probably sold many of the hats worn by the pedestrians in the first photo. Further down Fifth Avenue on the left is a similarly-designed building with a copper mansard roof. This was the Knabe Building, which was completed in 1906 for Wm. Knabe & Co., a piano manufacturing company.

Other early 20th century commercial buildings include the one on the far left at the corner of 41st Street, and, a block away, the current Mid-Manhattan Library building, which has the two vertical red banners in the 2016 scene. The most prominent building in this area, though, is the main branch of the New York Public Library just out of sight to the right. Only the lions at the front steps are visible from this angle, but they help to establish the date of the first photo as being no earlier than about 1910-1911, when they were installed at the newly-opened library building.

New York Public Library, New York City (2)

The New York Public Library, seen from the corner of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street around 1908. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The view in 2016:

The first photo here was taken a few years before the one in this earlier post, and it shows the library shortly before its completion. At this point the building had been under construction for about six years, and although the exterior was mostly finished, there was still about three more years of work left to do. The grounds had not been landscaped yet, and instead the library was surrounded by dirt and debris, with a simple brick wall and metal picket fence around the construction site. Also missing from the first photo were the two lion statues that now flank the front steps. Originally nicknamed Leo Astor and Leo Lenox after two of the library’s greatest benefactors, they were designed by sculptor Edward Clark Potter and were installed by the time the library opened in 1911.

New York Public Library, New York City

The main branch of the New York Public Library, seen from the corner of Fifth Avenue and 40th Street around 1911-1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The library in 2019:

The New York Public Library system has its origins in a number of 19th century private libraries, including the Astor Library and the Lenox Library. In 1895, these were consolidated into a single, city-wide public library, but the organization was in need of a suitable building. In the 1890s, the Boston Public Library had set the standard for grand city libraries, and New York City followed suit with this central library, located along Fifth Avenue between 40th and 42nd Streets. This spot had previously been the site of the Croton Distributing Reservoir, a massive 50-foot tall granite structure that was built in 1842 and could hold up to 20 million gallons of drinking water. It was demolished around 1900 and construction on the library began in 1902.

The interior of the library is known for its elegantly-designed public spaces, such as the marble Astor Hall, the walnut-paneled McGraw Rotunda, and the two-block long Main Reading Room, but there is far more to the building than just what is publicly accessible. When the library opened in 1911, its collections were stored in seven levels of stacks underneath the Reading Room, which had 75 miles of shelf space. The library eventually outgrew this space, though, and in the 1980s the stacks were expanded underneath Bryant Park, which is located behind the library.

Since 2008, the building has been officially named after Stephen A. Schwarzman, a businessman who donated $100 million toward renovating and expanding the library. Its exterior has remained largely unchanged from the first photo, but virtually everything else around it has changed in the past century. Today, Midtown Manhattan has grown up around the library, and while the backdrop of the first photo is a sky filled with white puffy clouds, today the view of the sky is now almost entirely obscured by modern skyscrapers that literally overshadow the library.

McGraw Rotunda, New York Public Library, New York City

The McGraw Rotunda on the third floor of the New York Public Library Main Branch, around 1911-1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The scene in 2016:New York Public LibraryN

The main branch of the New York Public Library, located at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, was completed in 1911, and the first photo was probably taken soon after, as it is part of a series of photos that the Detroit Publishing Company took to show the interior of the new building. The rotunda includes walnut paneling and a valuted ceiling, and the present-day photo also shows the murals that were added after the first photo was taken. Located on the walls and on the ceiling, the murals are entitled “The Story of the Recorded Word,” and were painted in 1937 by Edward Laning. One of them depicts Johannes Gutenberg holding a page from his famous Bible, which was the first book to have been printed using movable type. Appropriately, the McGraw Rotunda is also home to the New York Public Library’s copy of the Gutenberg Bible, which can be seen in the center of the 2016 photo. It was the first Gutenberg Bible in the United States, when James Lenox brought it here in 1847, and today it is one of only 49 existing copies in the world.