Monday, May 23, 2011

New York Public Library Turns 100!

This post also appears on the Bryant ark blog.

To commemorate the 100th birthday of the New York Public Library, and its central branch, the Stephen A. Schwarzman building, lets take a look back at the library through the years.

Before the Beaux-Arts building designed by architecture firm Carrère and Hastings was built, the two-block section of Fifth Avenue between 40th and 42nd Streets was home to the Croton Reservoir. The reservoir was torn down in 1899 to make way for the library. To read more about the demolition of the reservoir, and subsequent building of the library, click here.

Construction began in 1902, and was no small feat. When completed, the library was the largest marble structure in the country up to that time. This photo, from the NYPL's digital photo collection on the central building, shows exterior marble underway in 1905.

Photo: NYPL digital collection

The library opened to the public on May 23, 1911 with an elaborate ceremony presided over by 27th President of the United States William Howard Taft. Those flags are massive.

Photo: LOC digital collection

In 1919 the building served as a backdrop for a WWI victory parade along Fifth Avenue. Every stationary part of the building and street appears covered in shields, spears, and eagles. Shields and crossed spears often signify the defense of freedom, and eagles have long been associated with power and the U.S. I'm guessing that's their significance as decorations. If anyone knows otherwise, please email me.

Postcard:Pisark's cards

In the mid-1930s the NYPL established an outdoor reading room and called it the Bryant Park Library at Central Building. Much like our current reading room, patrons could enjoy books, magazines and newspapers outside in the park. The 1930s reading room was located on the Upper Terrace, just behind the main library building, and staff librarians were on hand to assist patrons.

Photo: BP photo collection

The library gets a scrub in 1945, seen here from 42nd Street looking east toward 40th Street. The World's Tower building on 40th Street looks huge in comparison to surrounding structures; the Empire State building is off to the right, just behind the Engineer's Club building (recently designated a landmark by the Landmarks Preservation Commission).

Photo: MCNY digital collection

Librarians and archivists: making research easier for 100 years and counting.

Photo: NYPL digital collection

The Bryant Park lawn (no chairs!) and rear facade of the library, May 1984.

Photo: BP photo collection
In 1988 the NYPL put two floors of additional library stacks beneath Bryant Park's lawn, seen here in a rendering by Hanna Olin, the design firm responsible for BP's redesign.

Photo: BP photo collection
Around this time last year, Improv Everywhere paid a visit to the the reading room, and re-enacted (sort of) the opening scene from Ghostbusters.

The NYPL has been hosting a number of events in celebration of the centennial, most over this past weekend. The library also has a special exhibit called "Celebrating 100 Years" on view until December 31, 2011. Here's a NY Times review.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

National Air Mail Week Starts Today!

Get ready! Transcontinental mailing has changed over the years, but in 1938, it was just 20 years old, and May 15th marked the start of Air Mail Week. [I'm going to spell it 'Airmail' from here on out. Over the years the two words gave birth to the current compound word, sort of like to-day versus today, or good-bye / goodbye, though I don't think airmail ever had a hyphen . . .]

ANYWAY, the  The week-long festivities from May 15-21 were planned to help bring air transport companies out of an economic slump, caused in large part by the Great Depression. The goal was to get everyone to send and/or receive at least one piece of transcontinental mail.

Here are some New Yorkers doing just that, in the Farley General Post Office, during Airmail Week. I love the a-frame sign in front of the teller windows. It reminds me science projects, or history presentations on countries or civilizations of the world that you'd do in fifth grade. Mine was on the Phoenecians.

Photograph of main post office building, New York City

The Farley building's namesake James A. Farley, was appointed 53rd Postmaster General, by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933. He served from 1933 until 1940. He was instrumental in the 1934 addition of the post office's western annex.

To promote and celebrate Airmail Week, the USPS issued a new 6 cent stamp, with a patriotic color scheme and (of course) an eagle. A fierce-looking red one.

Not to be confused with this fierce eagle


National Airmail Week is no longer celebrated with such fervor, but in 2008, to commemorate 90 years of flying in the U.S. Postal system, three pilots in vintage planes retraced the same inaugural route used on May 15, 1918. They successfully completed the journey, chronicled  here by Air & Space magazine.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Public Art Transforms a Struggling City Park

This post also appears on the Bryant Park blog.

Over the past year, Bryant Park has been the location of a few notable public art exhibits: Paul Ramirez Jonas' Key to the City, Kate Gilmore's Walk the Walk, and most recently, "Battle of the Brush." It's a long-standing tradition that many present-day park visitors may not be aware of. In 1980, the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation, Public Art Fund, and the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation collaborated to create an Artist-in-Residence program. The Artist-in-Residence program was one of several things park management did to infuse Bryant Park, then suffering from criminal activity and lack of use, with positive activity. The resulting spectacle increased pedestrian traffic and human presence in the park, and discouraged negative activity, such as drug use and vandalism.

Artists assembled their pieces on-site, where visitors were able to watch, ask questions, and in some cases, lend a hand with the installations. Exploring the theme of metamorphosis, visual conceptual artist Mel Chin, constructed his piece "MYRRHA P.I.A. (Post Industrial Age)" in the park, during the summer and fall of 1984.

Chin used  nineteenth century fabrication techniques to create a three-dimensional figurative sculpture of a female set on a wood pedestal, and placed in the center of the lawn.

The statue's two outer "skin" layers made of perforated steel, encased a skeleton made of polystyrene.

The piece was 30 feet tall, 6 feet deep, and 16 feet wide. "MYRRHA P.I.A." was completed, and unveiled on January 17,1985. It stood in the park until May 30 of that same year. 

In addition to Industrial Age fabrication techniques, Chin drew from  a nineteenth century engraving by French illustrator Gustav Doré. Chin's Myrrha is heavily based on Doré's engraving of Dante's portrayal of Myrrha in Divine Comedy. In Greek mythology, Myrrha disguised herself as someone else, tricked her father into an incestuous affair, as punishment was transformed into a tree, and, still as a tree, bore a son, Adonis. Doré's engraving shows Virgil leading Dante on a tour of the underworld, through the Eighth circle of hell, where Myrrha and other "falsifiers of others' persons" reside. For more on Dante, visit Danteworlds, an "integrated multimedia journey" through Dante's Divine Comedy.

Mel Chin continues to work and exhibit internationally.To see more of his work, click here, here, and here.

To learn more about Public Art projects in and around the city, visit the Public Art Fund, MAS NYC, and Creative Time. For more information of current public art exhibitions in New York City parks, click here.