Literary Landmarks: The New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building

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Literary Landmarks is a series that invites YPGers to visit a place of literary significance in New York City, Boston, or San Francisco.


The NYPL’s majestic Stephen A. Schwarzman Building

Looking to check out a book? Don’t come to the New York Public Library.

At least, not to the building on 5th Avenue at 42nd Street. The numerous branches scattered throughout Manhattan—including the Mid-Manhattan branch across 5th Avenue on 40th Street—offer a large variety of books and movies; however, the only books you can take out with you from the central branch are from the children’s section.

Instead, this treasured building is for the wandering historian, the literary critic, the book lover, the studious thinker, the relaxed reader, the inspired architect, the curious learner, and everyone in between.

Forty members of YPG from more than 13 AAP member houses recently visited the gorgeous Stephen A. Schwarzman Building to “get carded” with NYPL library cards, take in the architectural splendor, and enjoy a guided tour of bookish paradise. There really is so much to see here (much more than what’s visible to the casual browser), so I’ve tried to break it down into a series of mini tours. Note that this is still nowhere near the extent of what the library has to offer. My best advice is to find someone who’s been working at the library for years to show you around, because it’s very educational—and entertaining.


  • Visit the main exhibition hall right behind the 5th Avenue entrance, which is currently home to a collection called “The ABC of it: Why Children’s Books Matter” (through September 7, 2014). We all loved and had a slight obsession with Winnie the Pooh as a kid, right? The McDonald’s Happy Meal collectible key chains, the drawer full of branded objects in all shapes and sizes… Anyway, Christopher Robin’s original toys are here (!!) instead of in the UK because A.A. Milne adored his American publisher and decided to send them over.
  • More fun facts courtesy of our tour guide:
    • P.L. Travers loved the umbrella that her governess owned when she was young, so much so that she used it as a prototype for Mary Poppins’ umbrella. She, too, favored her New York editor, and the famous umbrella ended up on display here in the library.
    • One of the NYPL’s first children’s librarians, Anne Carroll Moore, was very influential in the industry. Apparently, if she didn’t like a book or refused to stock it, it was hard to get published. Rumor has it that she didn’t like Goodnight Moon!
  • Take a right out of the main exhibition hall down to the Dewitt Wallace Periodical Room. The 13 large murals on the walls are from 1983, and depict publishing landmarks of that era, including Harper’s and Park Row.
  • Walk upstairs to the McGraw Rotunda. Most of the murals in this space deal with the history of writing, and if you have an appreciation for books, prepare to be fascinated. There’s a portrait of Moses with the commandments, an image of cuneiform tablets going back 4,000 years, and a picture of monks writing by hand before the printing press, among others.
  • You don’t have to go far to hit the first of many hidden gems. The magnificent, sweeping columns are first to attract the eye as you walk into Astor Hall, followed by the candelabras and winding staircases. But it’s the delicate features that are the most surprising. There are tiny bunches of fruit and leaves etched into the ceiling, and small lions in the arches. Small bumblebees are carved inside the tiles, easily missed if not studied closely. These “beasties” remain a reoccurring theme in the architectural design; the animals are often hidden and fun to find.
  • Fun facts again from our lovely guide:
    • The Schwarzman building itself is 103 years old, and was almost built on the Upper East Side, where The Frick Collection is now.
    • Blocks of marble make up the ceiling, reminiscent of Roman buildings.
    • There are no central columns to hold up the building. All support lies in the outer walls. (Genius, right?)
    • The architects were John Carrère and Thomas Hastings. John died right before the library was officially opened in 1911.
  • Stop by the main exhibition hall directly behind the entrance, which contains the library’s only wooden ceiling, made of oak (don’t let yourself be fooled, as some of the other ceilings definitely look like they’re made of wood).
  • Head right, and continue down the hall to the Dewitt Wallace Periodical Room. The pink marble in this room is French, and the grey marble is German.
  • Stop in the hallway on the third floor and take a look at the water fountains, made of Italian marble (though you can’t actually drink out of them). Think back to our “beastie” discussion, because there are catfish on these fountains. Greek marble was also used in the hallway; normally, Greece doesn’t like marble leaving the Parthenon, but apparently that wasn’t the case 100 years ago when the library was built (lucky us!). This gives the area a classical Greco-Roman feel.
  • While you’re up on the third floor, take a look at the McGraw Rotunda. It’s a beautiful room, and the murals on the ceiling feature the Greek mythological figure Prometheus.
YPG tour group and guide assemble!

YPG tour group and guide assemble!


  • The story here is in the details, visiting a series of rooms and understanding the evolution of the space and the significance of the pieces. Every design and every artifact was chosen for a reason. On your way in, notice the sculpted lions out front, which were originally not very popular; public opinion held that they weren’t impressive enough to stand watch over the building. Sculpted by Edward Clarke Potter and originally named the south lion and north lion, in the 1930s they came to be known as Patience and Fortitude.
  • Once you’re in the building, head back and to the left, where you’ll find a new exhibition titled “Over Here: WWI and the Fight for the American Mind.” Upstairs, there is also an entire room just for maps! (It includes US history, local history, and genealogy sections).
  • Continue down the hallway to your right to the Dewitt Wallace Periodical Room. The space still showcases the original chairs, tables, and lamps for an easy visual of what the room might have looked like when first built.
  • Move across the hallway to the area that houses a small auditorium and classrooms. This part of the building was built on the old Croton Reservoir (a key landmark in Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, for any readers looking for a reference point). Instead of tearing down the reservoir, they’ve incorporated recycled stones into the library (our tour guide had a cool picture of the reservoir before the Civil War).
  • On the third floor, you’ll see water fountains that don’t work both because of the age of the building and because they caused too much trouble in the first place. The water came out too far and threatened to damage the marble floor. When they put mats down, people slipped (you know, it’s hard to walk sometimes, even with the little falling man signs placed as warnings).
  • On the same floor is the McGraw Rotunda, where a Gutenberg Bible is on display. It’s from 1455, and is believed to be one of forty-eight surviving copies in the world. It’s enclosed in glass, but the library turns the page every so often (what a great job). In 1847, it became the first copy to come to North America, and was eventually given to one of the library’s founders. There’s also a portrait of Gutenberg on the wall in the rotunda.
  • A generous fun fact from our guide: Somewhere inside the library is a draft of the Declaration of Independence in Jefferson’s hand, one of only two known copies in the world. If you’re feeling inspired, you can give your best attempt at explaining to the NYPL’s Special Collections department why you need to see it (apparently the library is very serious about this).
  • Within the library walls are rooms filled with treasured mementos by literary greats, including Sylvia Plath’s notations in a book of poetry and Ernest Hemmingway’s notes for his Nobel Prize acceptance speech (casual). Again, these are the province of Special Collections, and you will have to beg your way in using your smartest reasoning and deduction skills.
  • In case you can’t locate these thrilling specimens, move on to the Dewitt Wallace Periodical Room on the first floor. There’s a specialized Jewish collection here, one of the oldest in the library. This collection isn’t open to the public, but it’s fun enough just to know what it contains: here, you can find bagel recipes, see the oldest book printed in Hebrew, and read Sherlock Holmes in Yiddish.
  • On the third floor, you’ll find the Carl. H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle, which is open to researchers and is one of the two vastest Shelley collections in the world. It contains books, manuscripts, and letters from Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, and their contemporaries (including Lord Byron). If you knock on the door and an employee is inside, they’ll likely let you in.
  • Fun fact from our impressive tour guide: Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein during a family competition one night to write the best horror story. If only all of our family game nights were this productive!
The YPG tour group explores the library

The YPG tour group in action


  • If you come to the library looking to do research, check out the Dewitt Wallace Periodical room first. There are 10,000 periodicals from all over the world resting here. Now that the library is more computer-based, researchers have access to 60,000 total periodicals (a one-stop shop).
  • For more in-depth work and writing space, the Rose Main Reading Room (currently closed for restoration and set to reopen in approximately six months) offers all the quiet you need to examine volumes and write your papers. There is also a science, industry, and business library.
  • IMPORTANT: find someone on staff and ask them about a secret place on the third floor. (Make sure you’re not in a big group; while we heard the rumor, we didn’t get any answers because there were too many of us.)
  • Walk inside and head to your left. A 12-minute film about the library plays every half hour in a small theater here.
  • The library has endless treasures in Special Collections if you know where to look. You have to arrange to see these (and as mentioned before, you need a solid reason), so let your curiosity lead you to a good excuse. Do some research on the website beforehand, as you need to know exactly what you want to see (they won’t believe you if you say you just want to see something special). Do you accept the challenge?
  • Wander upstairs to the McGraw Rotunda, and think about why it’s not actually a rotunda. (Answer: James H. McGraw didn’t want it to be called McGraw Hall because it was too similar to his other company, McGraw Hill).
  • Once it re-opens, visit the Rose Main Reading Room next. It’s just a yard short of a football field, and one of the most open indoor spaces in NYC with no supporting pillars.
  • Fun fact from our very knowledgeable guide: There’s a relaxing room lined with old portraits nicknamed the “Wi-Fi reading room”… but it has no outlets. Think that one through. The women in these old portraits all have very pale faces, apparently because ingesting arsenic was the thing to do during that time. Our guide still endearingly told us the women looked beautiful.

YPG members “get carded” at NYPL


  • This is an easy one. Find a corner, settle down with your book or project, and enjoy the quiet (maybe even go so far as to forget you’re in NYC, or imagine you’re at Hogwarts).

GRADES (on a 1-5 scale):

Fun:  3. A short-lived entertainment, gives a good hour or two of some unique, nerdy fun.

Cool Factor:  4.5, especially if you make the cut to see some of the special collections.

Affordability (on a publishing salary):  5. That word we love to hear—”free!”

NYC Experience:  4. It’s an escape from the NYC craziness, but contains so much history (and there’s so much space!). If you want a valuable literary/cultural experience, this is it.

Total: 16.5

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