New York Public Library's Majestic Reading Room Gets a Facelift

After a two-year hiatus, the stunning space is reopening.

It became clear in May 2014 that as a matter of public safety, the ceilings of both rooms be inspected after one of the 16 lb. plaster rosettes fell from the 52-foot high ceiling in the Reading Room, crashing down at 2 a.m. Luckily, given the time, no one was sitting at one of the long wooden tables. Despite a thorough structural investigation concluding that the majority of the ceiling was actually in good shape, the NYPL continued with restoration plans that included reinforcing nearly 900 rosettes in both rooms.

"This room is the heart of the greatest library in the world for the greatest city in the world,” said Tony Marx, president of the New York Public Library. "We just said, while we're up let's just do everything we need to do to make sure it’s safe and beautiful, and that it lasts for generations to come so we don’t have to go back up."

For those who never had the opportunity to visit before 2014, you may never know the difference –- the ornamental ceiling, adorned with elaborate plaster rosettes framing hand-painted murals of swirling clouds and light, was carefully restored to maintain the original architecture of what has become a landmark for the city.

“After we did a long investigation and we were deep in the construction, we started to find other things that we hadn’t uncovered before that,” said engineer Eric Hammarberg. “It truly was a preservation approach.”

Spanning almost two city blocks -- nearly the length of a football field -- restoring and replacing the rosettes of the Reading Room with steel cable reinforcements was a feat in itself; on top of that, the NYPL commissioned muralists to recreate a 27 by 33 foot James Wall Finn mural on the ceiling of the Bill Blass Public Catalog Room. The Rose Main Reading Room underwent a $15 million renovation that was completed in 1998, but the ceilings in both rooms are part of the original structure built in 1911.

Though much of the project focused on restoring and recreating, there is one very special feature that is brand new to the Library that will make collecting any of its 51 million items on catalogue much easier.

Imagine 24 document-sized red cars running on rails through 11 levels of the library, each capable of holding 30 pounds of material over 950 feet of track. It’s a state-of-the-art ‘book train’, and it will carry items from the newly-expanded storage facility beneath Bryant Park and deliver them to two locations within the library: the first floor and the newly minted reading room on the third floor. But don’t blink too quickly -- the $2.6 million system moves at 75 feet per minute, delivering your book in roughly five minutes. Not including the time it takes for the request to be received and pulled by library staff, of course. New Yorkers may also see this train at another iconic city location soon.

"The MoMA is actually in the process of installing a similar system in their building to move parts of their collections,” said Gary Oliva, the library's director of facilities operations.

Whether you're a voracious reader or simply looking for a free activity around Manhattan, a visit to the Rose Reading Room should be on your list. The New York Public Library is the second largest public library in the U.S., second only to the Library of Congress, and fourth largest in the world.