The New York Public Library is moving forward with a $300 million renovation of its landmark Fifth Avenue building that will more than double its public space and fireproof the majestic main reading room, the library president said Wednesday.
But the plans he presented at a news conference have drawn withering criticism from some respected architecture experts, including Ada Louise Huxtable, who says the grand Beaux Art edifice is embarking on "its own destruction."
Library President Tony Marx has a different vision for the building completed in 1911.
"The driver of this project is to create the single greatest circulating and research library in the most beloved building here in the crossroads of New York," he said.
The institution that first opened in 1854 with money left by business magnate John Jacob Astor will be a more "functional" facility after the renovation, Marx said.
British architect Norman Foster's design will open up the back of the building that is now occupied by seven floors of stacks, creating a 100,000-square-foot contemporary space with books, reading areas and desks. A four-story atrium will overlook Bryant Park and Sixth Avenue.
The library's Fifth Avenue entrance is to continue through to the atrium.
Construction is expected to begin next summer and be completed in 2018.
The work will be self-funded in addition to $150 million from city, Marx said. About $150 million comes from selling other library property.
The renovation plan provoked controversy because the library initially proposed moving millions of books into storage in New Jersey to make room for the new circulating library. In response, officials revised their plan and now say that 3.3 million of the research library's 4.5 million volumes will remain on site, underneath the new space.
Huxtable has other reservations.
The New York architectural masterpiece "is about to undertake its own destruction," she wrote in a recent Wall Street Journal article, adding that "irreversible changes of this magnitude should not be made in this landmark building."
Foster, who has won the Pritzker Prize — architecture's equivalent of the Nobel — promises to "respect" the building's basic structure and leave it intact, while using the kinds of materials already there, like wood, stone and bronze.
The wood-paneled main reading room — the subject of many New Yorkers' most poetic memories — will remain intact but will be fireproofed since the open stacks below create a "chimney effect," Foster said. "If there was a fire, the Rose Reading Room would be no more."
The library plan includes details like the conversion of old offices and storage areas on the second floor into space for scholars.
A circulating library across Fifth Avenue from the main library is to be sold, as is the Science, Industry and Business Library on Madison Avenue; their contents will be moved to the main building.
The library president said the resulting $15 million in annual savings will allow the main location to be open longer and will permit the acquisition of more books and the hiring of extra librarians.
Marx noted that the city's 1.1 million public schoolchildren also will benefit, with more education resources and greater access to the library's collection.
The plan awaits approval from city agencies and the Landmarks Preservation Commission.