The Challenges of Renovating Historic Buildings: The New York Public Library

A conversation with Executive Project Architect Kerry Nolan

by Isabella Bolognese




It’s closing time when I arrive at the Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners (BBB) headquarters on Broadway to meet Kerry Nolan, Executive Project Architect for the New York Public Library Midtown Campus renovation. The offices are still alive with a hubbub of activity, but the bright walls and glass dividers transmit a sense of collected calm.


As Executive Project Architect, Nolan works with BBB partner Elizabeth Leber coordinating the teams restoring both the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building and the Mid-Manhattan Library, as well as collaborating with Dutch partner firm Mecanoo, led by Founding Partner and Creative Director Francine Houben.


Kerry Nolan - Ph. courtesy of Beyer Blinder Belle


The project presents many challenges, and organizational issues are only a small part of this. ‘The Stephen A. Schwarzman Building is such an important historic structure, and there’s a lot of public interest in it, we’re being very selective and doing a very surgical renovation’, Nolan explains.


Stephen A. Schwartzman building - Image courtesy of NYPL


The Schwarzman building project includes renovations on multiple floors. At the Ground Floor, a new entry terrace on the 40th Street façade will provide access to the Center for Research and Learning as well as a new staff entry. The First Floor work will consist of a renovation of Gottesman Hall, which hosts the library’s upcoming Treasures exhibition, a rotating exhibition of culturally significant collections from NYPL’s archives. There will also be an expanded Library Shop and the new Bartos Gallery off Astor Hall flanking the entry to Gottesman Hall. A Scholar Center program will be housed in a series of rooms at the center of the Library on the Second Floor.


Stephen A. Schwartzman building - Image courtesy of NYPL


The ceremonial glass-domed Bartos Forum is also being renovated. The library’s main event hall is a multifunctional space used for lectures, conferences, receptions, dinners, galas, as well as rented for  meetings and presentations. Its soaring leap arches and signature ornamentation make it a landmark of New York Beaux-Arts architecture.

Stephen A. Schwartzman building - Image courtesy of NYPL


Nolan is fascinated by the building’s history, and takes immense pleasure in discovering, bit by bit, how it came to be in its present form: ‘Understanding how the building was built is a challenge. We worked with historic photos, and we have a lot of the historic drawings, so, for example, we can see the exterior walls: in many cases, there’s a layer of face stone and then there’s the brick masonry backup structure. This helps us understand how we can make appropriate alterations to the building’. In fact, it’s no coincidence that BBB, which has worked on sites such as the Grand Central Terminal, Ellis Island, and the Cartier Fifth Avenue store, was selected for the project: ‘This firm is a great resource for this project, our team is supported by our staff trained in historic preservation and conservation’, Nolan comments.


Mid Manhattan Library - Image courtesy of NYPL


Importantly, public elevators are also planned to help with accessibility. ‘In these old buildings there are non-compliant conditions that we need to resolve', Nolan remarks, ‘one of the challenges is dealing with the existing structure, and it is a very solidly built building: the walls are three-feet thick, solid masonry’. A stair adjacent to the elevators is also planned to concentrate the new vertical circulation together.


Mid Manhattan Library - Image courtesy of NYPL


Across 5th Avenue is the Mid-Manhattan Library, NYPL’s largest circulating branch library. Originally a department store, the early 20th-century building was acquired by the NYPL in the 1960s, originally occupying space on the fourth through sixth floors.


Mid Manhattan Library - Image courtesy of NYPL


They expanded to occupy all six floors in the mid-1970s, and  a full gut renovation is currently underway. In addition to the Mid-Manhattan collection, the building will also house the Children’s Library that was formerly located on the Ground Floor of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, as well as collections from the Science, Industry, and Business Library on the 5th Floor. There is a roof addition, also known as the ‘Wizard’s Hat’ where NYPL can expand their program offerings on the Midtown Campus.


Mid Manhattan Library - Image courtesy of NYPL


The Mid-Manhattan Library will open in January 2020, while the Schwarzman building, which will remain occupied during the renovation, will see different spaces open at different times.


Cover: Stephen A. Schwartzman building - Image courtesy of NYPL



    Stephen A. Schwarzman Building 1

    Stephen A. Schwarzman Building

    New York / United States / 2021

    Mid-Manhattan Library 8

    Mid-Manhattan Library

    New York / United States / 2020