I spent last Friday and Saturday in NYC for the first time since returning to the USA, catching up with old friends and new. While the city can be charming in winter, and reunions are always heart-warming, those wind tunnels can make the memory of a Scottish winter, of all things, feel like summer.
The biggest problem of needing to kill a few hours before catching a train in a frigid city like NYC is figuring out what to do, where to go. Walking feels terrible, so you want to do as little of it as possible. Most of the major museums have a fee, that, when combined with public transportation or cab fares, as well as the length of the journey in either direction, make it not worth the bother. (That being said, I am a huge fan of allocating a day for The Met, MoMA, the American Museum of Natural History, or the Guggenheim.) The National Museum of the American Indian charges no admission fee, but is quite a stretch from Grand Central Station. Luckily, if one leaves Grand Central from the 42nd Street exit, turns right and walks the five minutes down to 5th Avenue, on the corner sits the main branch of the New York Public Library.
The establishment of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building as the Public Library at the turn-of-the-century was an unprecedented move at the time, dedicating to the city a public trust for intellectual advancement and growth. Even today, to walk between the lions Patience and Fortitude, to enter Astor Hall, is to entire a solid marble temple dedicated to the preservation of knowledge in the service of the public. The most beautiful thing is that while the building itself is a treasure, people still come from all over the world to admire the greater treasures within.
While on this visit the Rose Main Reading Room was closed, I did not manage to see the stuffed toys that inspired Winnie the Pooh, or actually utilize any of the reading rooms or special collections, such as the Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle (most require an appointment, and I had no time anyways), I did find myself absolutely awed by the way the building is used as an exhibition in and of itself. The celebration of literature, but also humanity’s drive to collect and preserve knowledge and art is apparent from the presentation of the NYPL’s history, the guided tours, and the displays.
In the McGraw Rotunda, I saw a ca. 1455 original edition of the Gutenberg Bible, surrounded by neoclassical-styled frescos completed by Edward Laning during the Federal Art Project of the Great Depression, celebrating the Story of the Recorded Word. The hallways extending off the rotunda showcased the prints from J.M.W. Turner and Thomas Moran – having seen the watercolours of Turner last January during the special annual exhibit at the National Gallery of Scotland, it was a moment that brought me full circle.
I might have gone into the NYPL to escape the wind while waiting for my train, but what I found there was inspiration, and a sense of coming home that I had yet to feel. Anyone can walk into that building and discover something new, over 100 years after a few wealthy families had determined to leave to the public a lasting written legacy. Anyone visiting the city should plan on stopping by the branch on the corner of 42nd and 5th, and take a moment to marvel.