Many art historians consider this to be the finest Beaux Arts building in the United States. It certainly is one of the grandest, completed in 1911 at a cost of over $9 million and built by the famous firm of Carrere and Hastings. The exterior takes its inspiration from the twin palaces on the north side of the Place de la Concorde in Paris and is done in the same French Renaissance style, a perfect harmony of columns, pediments, and statuary. Famous stone lions guard the entrance and are said to roar whenever a virgin passes by. Want to use the library? Well, you will be “reading between the lions” (sorry, I couldn’t resist).
The library itself holds thousands of volumes, many of which are housed underground below what is now Bryant Park. A “no-browsing” facility, it uses an ancient dumbwaiter system for retrieval of books in which the tomes are stacked into a small elevator and sent up when requests are made. Along with books, Gottesman Exhibition Hall (first floor) often houses interesting exhibits on literary and New York history. Near the hall is a small theater for showings (on the half hour and hour) of a really terrific 23-minute long film about the library’s and history. Don’t skip the Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal room, which houses one of the most extensive collections of maps in the world (and is magnificent after a $5 million renovation).
Entrance is always free, as are exhibits and the film, and the palatial interior, with its expanses of marble and carved oak ceilings, is worth a look-see. For a more formal tour, time your visit to occur at 11am or 2pm Monday through Saturday, and 2pm on Sundays.