Tour NY Public Library’s Famed Schwarzman Building


by Debbie Stone


It’s hard to miss the monumental marble building lining Fifth Avenue in New York City. The one with the massive lion statues out front. You might think it’s a museum or a courthouse, or maybe government offices. But no, it’s actually the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, the flagship of the New York Public Library system and a National Historic Landmark. And it’s a beaut!



Though you can visit this library on your own, taking a guided tour of the place will greatly enhance your appreciation and respect for this magnificent edifice. The free one-hour tours begin at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Monday through Saturday and you need to book tickets online. Tickets are released every Sunday for the week ahead and often go quickly, as the tours are very popular.

The NY Public Library’s Schwarzman Building is one of the most iconic buildings in the Big Apple. Notably, it’s a premier research center, a “collector and preserver,” but most importantly, a provider of knowledge. Writers, artists, scholars, and anyone with a desire and a need-to-know come here from all over the world. They come to explore, learn, and create new knowledge, making use of the millions of books, manuscripts, audio recordings, works of art, maps, pictures, and historic items available to them. It’s an astonishing and mind-boggling amount of collections!

It took ten years to build the library, which was constructed on the site of a former reservoir. Just to dismantle the reservoir took two years and 500 men. The city donated the land, which today would be worth just under a billion dollars.

In 1911, it opened with much fanfare. President Taft presided over the dedication of the building, which he called “a work of National importance.” He hailed it as the culmination of a plan that provides all New Yorkers access to information, as well as a “model and example for other cities” to do the same. Fifty thousand people flocked through its doors on that day and since then, millions more have followed in their footsteps.

Two architects, Joh M. Carrere, and Thomas Hastings, immigrants who were relatively unknown at the time, won a competition to design the library. They created the Beaux-Arts style building to represent Gilded Age wealth and splendor. The elaborate result rivaled some of the most famous landmarks in Europe and was proof that New York had made it on the world stage.

Dubbed “the People’s Palace of Learning” due to its palace-like appearance, this resplendent building is a symbol of the city being the center of information. Though its opulence might give you the impression that it’s a private residence fit for royalty, all are welcome here. It’s for the free use of the people.

Approaching the library, you’ll notice the two massive lion sculptures on each side guarding the area. They have names – Patience and Fortitude –given to them by well-known NYC Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. They represent two characteristics that New Yorkers needed to possess in order to get through the Depression Era.

The entrance is bookended by two fountains adorned with allegorical figures: Beauty and Truth, which represent the higher goals of learning that visitors are encouraged to seek within the library. Up above the entrance are six figures representing different aspects of literature: history, romance, religion, poetry, drama, and philosophy.

You’ll enter the library through formal bronze doors into Astor Hall, the heart of the building and one of the grandest foyers in the city. Your tour guide, who meets you there, points out the ancient Greek and Roman elements, the columns and arches, the grand staircase, and the symmetry of the design. There are two or four of everything. The piece de resistance is the floor-to-ceiling marble that appears to glow. It’s cold upon touch and sounds echo throughout the hall, as they bounce off the hard surface.

Carved into the stone, on the walls between the arches, are the names of the library’s earliest benefactors, including its founders John Jacob Astor James Lenox, and Samuel Tilden. These men were civic leaders and came from prominent, wealthy families in 19th-century New York.

A name that’s probably not familiar to most folks is Martin Radtke. He has his own plaque on the floor near the doors. This humble Lithuanian immigrant used the library’s resources to educate himself, enabling him to earn much money, which he left to the library in gratitude upon his death. The library honored him with this plaque as a reminder that serving the public is at the core of its purpose.

As for the name of the library itself, that’s attributed to Wall St. financier, Stephen A. Schwarzman, who donated $100 million to the renovation and expansion of the building.

On the main floor, you’ll find the Visitor Center with some exhibits, along with the Library Shop and Café. The Polonsky Exhibition of The New York Public Library’s Treasures is also nearby. These treasures tell the stories of people, places, and moments spanning 4,000 years – from the emergence of the written word through to the present day.

Definitely stop in here pre- or post-tour to gape in wonder at the incredible and rare objects on display, like the Gutenberg Bible, the original Winnie-the-Pooh stuffed animals, Charles Dickens’ desk and chair, an original copy of the Declaration of Independence written in Thomas Jefferson’s hand and the tutu worn by famed ballerina Alexandra Danilova. There are even fragments of the skull of British poet Percy Shelley!

You’ll see numerous rooms and spaces during the tour. One of the highlights is the McGraw Rotunda with its impressive murals, sweeping arches, and window bays. Look up and marvel at the ceiling, which depicts Prometheus, the Greek demigod giving man knowledge and fire. This story of the written word continues around the walls, beginning with Moses carrying a tablet containing half of the Ten Commandments and ending with the first use of the type-setting machine in New York.

On one side of the rotunda is the entrance to the Bill Blass Public Catalog Room, which leads into the stunning Rose Main Reading Room. The Catalog Room was renamed in 1994 for fashion designer Bill Blass, a Library Trustee and longtime benefactor. This lofty and light-filled room with its ethereal ceilings, marble floors, and bronze chandeliers is where much research takes place. Interesting note: No one is allowed to check out any of the materials from the library. Whatever you need must be used inside the walls of this “beacon of knowledge.”

The Rose Main Reading Room is one of the city’s most beautiful spaces and a designated interior landmark. It’s definitely a showstopper. Before entering, look up above the doorway for the words from 17th-century English poet, journalist, and historian John Milton: “A good book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.” This very apropos quote emphasizes the fact that reading is fundamental and that literature has power over a person’s life.

Step inside this remarkable room, which measures 78 feet by 297 feet, about the length of two city blocks, and boasts 52-foot-tall ornate ceilings displaying breathtaking murals of skies and clouds. This majestic space melds Old World elegance with modern technology, where patrons can request material from the Milstein Stacks, the library’s storage facility located underneath Bryant Park with a capacity of over four million items. Visitors can also browse and read the thousands of reference volumes lining the shelves.

The Edna Barnes Salomon Room is another handsome space, with its dark maple wood floors, walnut tables, and ceiling featuring faux skylights from end-to-end. It was originally set up as a picture gallery and its walls are lined with over forty portraits and paintings in ornate frames. The largest is Mihály Munkácsy’s “The Blind Milton Dictating ‘Paradise Lost’ to His Daughters,” which depicts the 17th-century English poet sitting in an armchair with his three daughters gathering around a nearby table, their gazes fixed on him, one holding a quill to paper.

Among the portraits are the likes of George Washington, Washington Irving, members of the Astor and Lennox families, and even one of Truman Capote. Why Capote you might ask? You’ll learn that the author set an important scene in Breakfast at Tiffany’s in the reading room of the library.

Many famous people have frequented the library over the years, including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Norman Mailer, Princess Grace Kelly, Francis Ford Coppola, Frank McCourt, Tom Wolfe, and Helen Hayes. And there have been numerous movies and T.V. shows filmed in the building, such as “Ghostbusters,” “Philadelphia,” “Maid in Manhattan,” “The Wiz,” “Spider-man 3,” “The Day After Tomorrow,” “Prizzi’s Honor,” episodes from “Seinfeld” and “Sex and the City,” and more.

Debbie Stone is an established travel writer and columnist, who crosses the globe in search of unique destinations and experiences to share with her readers and listeners. She’s an avid explorer who welcomes new opportunities to increase awareness and enthusiasm for places, culture, food, history, nature, outdoor adventure, wellness, and more. Her travels have taken her to nearly 100 countries spanning all seven continents, and her stories appear in numerous print and digital publications.

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