For two new poems of mine, on ninny versus deep serene, and proverbs for the wicked, click here and scroll down to pp. 34 and 35.
This is a tale of two libraries, one an old friend and one a mystery building; I’ll start with the old friend. The year 2016 has seen many architectural changes in the city of New York. The one I can most relate to is the reopening, after two years of renovation, of the Rose Reading Room of the New York Public Library, that formidable Beaux Arts structure on Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street, guarded by two famous sculpted lions. Behind that Beaux Arts façade and the lions, deep inside and up on the third floor, is the famous reading room where researchers pore over the items they have requested.
In years past I have spent hours in the Rose Reading Room perusing books, many of them fragile, fetched up from the library’s innards and delivered to me when my magic number flashed on the screen above the window where you claim the books requested, or where you find, alas, that the items you most want and need are not available. Sometimes I claimed one thin volume, and sometimes a whole stack of books that I with effort toted back to my seat at one of the room’s long tables. All round me were other researchers likewise immersed in their work, plus an occasional intruder from the streets who propped some book or newspaper up in front of him (always a him) and pretended to read, while dozing off from time to time, until a library guard nudged him awake and reminded him that sleeping here in the Rose Room is totally and absolutely forbidden.
My last project there was reading books – preferably primary sources – about the slave trade in New York, as background material for my unpublished historical novel Dark Knowledge. So engrossed was I in my research that I failed to look around and above me to appreciate just how magnificent my surroundings were: a room the length of two city blocks, with a 52-foot-high ceiling displaying murals showing fluffy clouds in a wide-arching sky. The building itself dates back to 1902, when the cornerstone was laid; the roof was completed in 1906, but the library didn’t open until 1911, when on the first day between 30,000 and 50,000 visitors poured in.
Given the building’s age, it’s not surprising that time took its toll. One night in May 2014 an ornamental plaster rosette crashed to the floor of the reading room, causing the library to conduct a full inspection of the ceilings of both the Rose Reading Room and the adjoining catalog room where scholars submit their request and receive the magic number that will let them claim their materials in the reading room. Restored in the 1990s, the 1911 reading-room ceiling proved to be in good condition, but the library decided to do more than recreate and replace the fallen rosette. Installing scaffolding and lengthy platforms, it reinforced all 900 plaster elements in both rooms with steel cables, restored the catalog room’s mural, and installed LED lights in the reading room’s chandeliers. The project cost $12 million and meant the rooms were closed for two years, to the dismay of researchers and the general public, who were serviced in other less grandiose rooms throughout the building.
Today the rejuvenated rooms once again welcome researchers, who need have no fear that a falling plaster rosette will crash upon their noggin, disrupting vital research. Besides fetching books from the stacks, the two rooms hold about 52,000 reference books, including encyclopedias and dictionaries in various languages. For one complicated project I once consulted encyclopedias in Spanish, French, and German, as well as a Russian one in translation – a reminder of what outlandish assignments may come to a freelance editor.
One last detail: why is it called the Rose Reading Room? Because it is named for the four children of the Rose family that donated the money to restore the room in the 1990s.
And now for the mystery building. There are in fact two mystery buildings side by side on West 13th Street that I pass frequently, but which until now I have never really looked at closely. One, a three-story windowless slab near Greenwich Avenue, looms strangely, obviously not commercial or residential. What, then, is it? A Metropolitan Transportation Authority substation, one of many situated throughout the city, but this particular one hailed by that august authority, the New York Times, as an example of a civic-minded expression of architectural ambition. Built in the early 1930s, it is described as an Art Deco gem and a neighborhood landmark, prized for its geometric decorations, embossed aluminum doors, limestone frieze, Flemish brick coursing (whatever that is), and square turrets. Yes, close inspection even of a photo reveals all those things, if only the city’s hurrying pedestrians (myself included) would stop to take them in.
But what is an MTA substation? It is a facility, underground or above, that converts high voltage AC current into the DC current used by the subways of New York City. If that doesn’t clear things up for those who never took a high-school physics course – or even for those who did – I can only add that photos of substation interiors show rows of big boxlike gray structures with gauges and dials that, minus the gauges and dials, remind me of high school lockers where students deposited their wraps, lunches, and other vital items. There are also panels and cranes and fans and ventilation ducts, and cables and tanks and wires, the exact purpose of which escapes me. But some substations have been landmarked, and the New York Transit Museum offers tours of substations to those who are eager to learn more about how this city works, even though the public usually exits the tours more confused than ever. So let’s just say that substations provide the power that makes the trains run. And if their usually unlovely exteriors are sometimes enlivened with a bit of Art Deco ornamentation, so much the better.
But right next to the West 13th Street substation is another building, 251 West 13th Street, that is as impressive and intriguing as the substation is prosaic and plain: a three-story red-brick affair with rounded arches over tall windows that reminds me a little of the Jefferson Market Library on Sixth Avenue. The 13th Street building was once a branch library that I visited when I lived nearby on Jane Street, but it is now in private hands, handsomely ornate, not a bit Art Deco, its recessed ground floor and basement visible from the street through iron bars, the ground floor’s big windows revealing what seems to be an office. A notice at the entrance announces, “BE AWARE / This entrance is being videotaped,” which for me makes it only more mysterious. Also posted there: “Suite 1 Private / Suite 2 Levinson/Fontana.” All this made me curious about the building’s history, and sure enough, like so many old buildings in the city, it has history aplenty.
The building at 251 West 13th Street was a branch library right from the start: the Jackson Square Library, built in 1887, as announced by wrought-iron numbers on the red-brick façade, a gift to the city’s newly created Free Circulating Library by George W. Vanderbilt who, unlike many of that moneyed clan, was a bookworm eager to make books available to the public. But my linking it to the Jefferson Market Library was for the most part mistaken, for that library is Victorian Gothic, whereas this one resembles a Flemish guildhall, reminding me of the handsome guildhall façades lining the Grande Place in Brussels, Belgium.
This branch in time played a role in the history of libraries, for in 1899 its head librarian initiated an open-shelf system, giving the public free access to the books, and relieving the librarians of the wearying task of fetching the requested books from distant closed shelves, an innovation that then spread throughout the branches and persists to this day. Yes, a few books were stolen, but librarians still preferred the open system and considered the losses negligible. Another problem was contagious diseases, no small matter since a janitor and his son who lived in the building came down with scarlet fever in 1908, causing the library to be shut down for fumigation, the patrons having to trudge some distance to another branch. In more recent times the library was used by writers, artists, and other professionals, among them James Baldwin, Ring Lardner, W.H. Auden, Gregory Corso, and my humble self.
In 1961 plans were made to save the Jefferson Market Courthouse on Sixth Avenue and convert it into a branch library serving Greenwich Village – the branch library that I often visit and get books from. As a result of this conversion, the smaller Jackson Square Library was closed and sat empty until 1967, when the performance artist Robert Delford Brown bought it. An extensive restoration followed, bringing light to the dark interior and hacking away the front doors and much of the ground floor, so that the building now seems to cantilever precariously above the sidewalk. Here Brown staged frequent happenings and installed his First National Church of the Exquisite Panic, a tongue-in-cheek enterprise with two supreme commandments: Live, and Do Not Eat Cars. Since the state of nirvana was too difficult to achieve, Brown instructed his faithful how to reach the state of Nevada.
But that was not the end of the building’s transformations. In the 1980s the television writer Tom Fontana discovered the building and was struck by it, noting its distinctive appearance and deteriorated condition. Then, in 1996, learning that it was for sale, he bought it and initiated a restoration that obliterated much of the previous renovation, installed a spacious and airy bachelor’s pad (he is divorced, lives alone) on the two upper floors, and installed his office on the main floor, and other facilities in the basement. His residence is presumably the Suite 1 indicated at the entrance, and Levinson/Fontana in Suite 2 is the TV production company he has founded with director Barry Levinson. The second floor, once the library’s main reading room, now houses Mr. Fontana’s library, its 6,600 volumes lodged in floor-to-ceiling mahogany bookcases. And on the roof, hidden behind the gable at the front of the building, is a sun-splashed deck complete with a suburban-size grill. The façade was not restored, however, because of the expense involved, so the building may still seem to cantilever above the sidewalk.
Having no television, I know little about Mr. Fontana, who is said to party a lot; one of his New Year’s Eve festivities drew 400 guests and lasted till dawn. Though I’m not that party-prone, I still warm to him because he peppers his speech with profanities (as I, alas, sometimes do), has never owned a car, and doesn’t use a computer, preferring to write his scripts in longhand. His eschewing the computer balances out my eschewing television. (Veteran followers of this blog know that I love this verb, which sounds like a sneeze – a perfect note to end on.)
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Browder poems: For my short poem “I Crackle” and a stunning photo of me, go here. For five acceptable poems, click here and scroll down. To avoid five terrible poems, don't click here. For my poem "The Other," inspired by the Orlando massacre, click here.
BROWDERBOOKS: No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World, my selection of posts from this blog, has received these awards: the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016. For the Reader Views review by Sheri Hoyte, go here. As always, the book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), my historical novel about a young male prostitute in the late 1860s in New York who falls in love with his most difficult client, is likewise available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Coming soon: The changing skyline of the city: what’s to hate and what’s to love.
© 2017 Clifford Browder