New York has some of the most beautiful and iconic architecture in the United States. The City That Never Sleeps is a photographer’s Mecca: the Chrysler Building, Empire State, and the New York Public Library to name a few. I moved from Houston to New York in May and still had not yet been, so I very selfishly asked if I could do an article/photo diary of my first trip to one of my favorite buildings in the world. This may come as a shock to you, they said yes.
Originally titled: “I WORE THE WRONG SHOES AND I DEEPLY REGRET IT: A PHOTOGRAPHER’S FIRST TIME AT THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY” ?
I’m continually struggling with Apple Maps in New York. In Houston, it’s simple. You put in your destination, you drive, you’re there and it’s easy as can be. New York doesn’t make it so easy. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten out of the subway and walked in the wrong direction just because the GPS telling me which direction I’m facing hasn’t realized it’s above ground yet and caught up. So I took the long way around the block, but realistically, so should you.
Walk up 41st Street. That’s where the view is and it’s incredible. Pictures don’t prepare you for just how impressive the building is. Look down at the sidewalk as you turn onto Library Way. It’s decorated with inspirational quotes about reading, writing, and literature. Each sculpted plaque will bring a smile to your face. No spoilers, book lovers, you’ll just have to go see them for yourself.
The New York Public Library is stunning. Seriously, stunning. The flagship of the New York Public Library system is the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, a prominent historical landmark designed by architecture firm Carrère and Hastings and built in 1911. With almost fifty-three million items in its collection, it’s the second largest public library in the United States and the fourth largest in the world. Tours are available, but tours are for tourists.
Martin Mlecko, “Bibliothek I”, 1996.
I started my journey on the third floor, because, pro-tip, starting as far away as possible always makes the trip home more pleasant. As I turned the corner to get away from the cute family with too many children that shared my elevator, this Mlecko photograph stopped me in my tracks. Though, so did my shoes, which let’s be real, I regretted as soon as I got to work that morning. But fashion is pain sooo…
Mlecko’s photograph isn’t technically a piece of New York Public Library history – instead “a book-filled wall in an apartment in eastern Berlin, dealing primarily in socialist/Marxist economic literature, shown as a symbol of decline. If a volume is removed, the entire ‘system’ threatens to collapse.”
Everything in the New York Public Library is breathtaking. Every bit of ceiling, every light fixture, every wall and every piece of masterfully carved furniture. The ceilings are gilded, delicately painted but exquisite and colorful nonetheless. The library was full of people with their noses in books and nearly the same amount with their eyes pointed skyward, cameras and cell phones capturing the beauty of the building surrounding them; myself included.
In the Bill Blass Public Catalog Room, I asked a librarian what her favorite rooms were, so props to her because from this point onward I’m going off her recommendations. You can barely make her out, just a forehead peeking above her male counterpart’s shoulder, but big shoutout to you! I forgot to get your name, but you’re the real MVP.
This is the first room that I was painfully, painfully aware the sound my shoes made with each step I took. Despite my roommate and I having the same size feet, the devastatingly cute booties I borrowed from her were slightly too big. In my attempts to quiet my footsteps the hell down I instead created the perfect storm for a variety of blisters in the most vicious locations, ones I’ve never had to deal with before. I’m talking ball of each foot, pads of my big toes, and a bit above the ankle where the stitching rubbed me raw. But hey, at least they’re cute, right?
I’ve always liked windows. Big, small, little view, breathtaking view, I don’t care, I like a window. The New York Public Library has some insaaaaaane windows. Don’t get me wrong, there’s also tons and tons of books, but the flagship 5th Ave location is a research library so unless you’ve got a reason to be researching you’re not going to be digging through the stacks because the librarians won’t let you.
From the Bill Blass Public Catalog Room you get your first glimpse of the Rose Main Reading Room, arguably the most impressive room in the library. I’m a big fan of the inscriptions on the wooden arches dividing the rooms, long ‘s’s and all.
The librarians of the Rose Main Reading Room were very clear with me – if you have a camera, you do not go past the velvet rope. Of course, they told me after I had already stepped over said velvet rope in search of that quintessential symmetrical architecture photo people continually chase. It’s all about the aesthetics, people!
The Rose Main Reading Room is a sight to be seen, preferably in person. The 78 foot by 297 foot room (roughly two city blocks!) has fifty-two foot ceilings and two massive murals of vibrant skies and billowing clouds. Restored in 2014, the $12 million ceiling has recently been repaired again after an electrician’s misstep and subsequent fall (oops) punctured the famed plaster ceiling.
There are reference books as far as the eye can see in the Rose Main Reading Room, not that I looked at any or checked any out. There’s nothing like being chastised by a librarian that makes you feel like you’re in elementary school again. Shoutout to my elementary school librarian, Mrs. Germann, for being simultaneously the sweetest woman I’ve ever met while maintaining one of the meanest stank faces I’ve ever seen, still to this day.
I think people sleep on Astor Hall, because it doesn’t have the same detail other rooms have. But look at it! Look at it! The architecture style might be “minimal”, but it still commands respect and attention. Besides, if everything is awe-inspiring, is anything?
A quick detour into the serious and somber: this inscription in the tile of Astor Hall stands to reminds us just how important public library systems are. Lack of access to formal education should never hold you back in your search for knowledge.
Another ornate ceiling of the New York Public Library, this one spans the complete length of the first floor hallway and the woodwork is absolutely incredible. I couldn’t capture it, not like how it is in person. The detail is too intricate, the ceilings are too high, even my small fortune of camera equipment couldn’t do it justice. Not that that stopped my roommate from making this her phone background, but that’s neither here nor there.
The Dewitt Wallace Periodicals Room is one of the quieter, cozier places in the Library. That is, until I walked in. This was one of the rooms where honestly, I was really embarrassed to walk around. My shoes might have looked ah-mah-zing with my bell bottom True Religions that are just a biiiiit too long, but y’all, those shoes are loud and every room in the library has truly amazing acoustics. My bad, guys.
On my way to the last room I was explicitly told to go to, I passed the gift shop, library shop, whatever. I managed to catch an employee setting up a display on the Statue of Liberty, and compositionally, this is my favorite photo of the trip.
The Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, rated 10 out of 10 stars for both maps and naps.
If you love people watching, the New York Public Library is a great place to spend your afternoon. Right after taking the picture below, an older man approached me and asked about my on-hand camera equipment (Canon 6D, 16-35mm f/4, 50mm f/1.8, 85mm f/1.8) and shared his own recommendations (predominantly Nikon, about the time I stopped listening), before urging me to “be careful this Halloween because people slip all sorts of things in Halloween candy like razor blades and ecstasy tablets and if you didn’t know, Halloween candy is the number one cause of tooth decay (it’s not) so please be careful with your gorgeous smile.”
Y’all, there’s nowhere in the world quite like New York City.
The Milstein Division certainly had a lot of books, not that I could get up close and personal with any. The second floor of bookshelves was off limits to non-library staff, yet another red velvet rope standing in the way of my ~vision~. When I arrived, the same man from before was having the same Halloween conversation with the librarians, who were not as entertained as I was.
Casual reminder from our good pal Al to question everything and/or trust no bitch.
The flagship 5th Ave location of the New York Public Library is the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, though I’ve never heard it called that before, and I double, triple, quadruple checked I was going to the right place before I even set off. Ask me how many times I’ve arrived somewhere to realize it’s not where I actually wanted to be. Too many times. More times than I’m proud of. Anyway. The Stephen A. Schwarzman Building is an excellent place to selfie.
And of course, it wouldn’t be a trip to the library without a token photo of the lions, so here’s a singular lion, because I clearly didn’t feel like putting in the effort to get a photo with both of them after a three hour romp around the library on three inch heels, especially when I had four more hours to go before I could costume change and get the hell out of those shoes.
So that’s it! Those are my photos, that was my trip. The only reason why I left when I did was because I was determined to make it back to the office before six, before I was locked out and my computer and wallet and apartment keys were locked in.
Overall, the only negatives about the New York Public Library were things I made more difficult for myself. I absolutely can’t wait to go back.
Side note, I’m super bummed I had to put a watermark on all these but hey, what’s a girl to do?
Featured Image Via Hilary Schuhmacher Photography.