The Gould Memorial Library in the Bronx may be the most famous building in New York City that you’ve never heard of. It recently made an appearance in The Greatest Showman, the 2018 Hugh Jackman musical about the life of P. T. Barnum, as the setting for a glorious party, but unless you know what you’re looking at, you’d think it was an elaborate Hollywood stage set—not a library.
MacCracken needed an architect to mastermind his ambitious project. Stanford White was an obvious candidate. As a principal in McKim, Mead and White, he was a leading architect of the day, and his father, Richard Grant White, attended the University of the City of New York. MacCracken approached White in 1891 and asked him to design the campus, which he did. In the winter of 1894–95, White designed the domed library to sit atop a bluff of an escarpment that overlooked the Harlem River and that dominated the surrounding landscape. Construction began in 1897 when Helen Gould Shepard donated funds to name the library in honor of her father, financier Jay Gould, and the library was completed in 1899. The library is the physical embodiment of Chancellor Henry Mitchell MacCracken’s ambitions for New York University and of White’s outstanding abilities as an architect.
In his design of the Gould Memorial library, Stanford White reinterpreted the Pantheon in Rome. The Pantheon is considered by many architects to be one of the greatest Roman buildings ever erected. Started by Marcus Agrippa during the reign of the Emperor Augustus (27 BCE to 14 CE), it was remodeled and rebuilt by successive emperors throughout antiquity. The building that stands today is largely the work of the Emperor Trajan (with modifications by the Emperor Hadrian and the Severan Dynasty). It is famous for its remarkable interior. The lofty interior was dominated by a vast dome, composed around a perfect circle with a diameter of 150 Roman feet with elaborate opus sectile flooring and wall decoration, composed of marble from across the Roman Empire. The Pantheon’s porch had a pediment and the outline of a taller pediment, creating the visual effect of a double pediment. While scholars debate the origin and meaning of Pantheon’s double pediment, construction techniques, and date, these academic concerns were not of primary importance to later architects, who viewed the Pantheon, as the quintessential Roman building and as an architectural palimpsest to be reinterpreted.
White’s selection of the Pantheon was deliberate. The Pantheon was a potent symbol of classical culture, which had become emblematic of elite education and culture in the United States. The form of the Pantheon imbued the Gould Memorial library and NYU’s new campus with a sophisticated air of classical and European culture, as well as architectural and academic prestige. For a university with ambitions, such as NYU, only a grand, Roman-inspired library would do.
The interior of the library is composed of a main reading room with adjoining rooms and offices. The main reading room was accessed through a steep, elegant staircase. White modeled the staircase and its stucco-coffered ceiling on the Golden Staircase in the Ducal Palace, Venice, and the Great Staircase in the Vatican. The axiality of the staircase focused one’s view towards the entranceway and two Connemara marble columns, thereby creating an aura of excitement to see what lay ahead. Yet, from this elegant, but largely grey and white staircase, one could scarcely anticipate the vast, domed reading room that lay beyond the landing atop the stairs.
The lofty dome, spanning 70 feet, creates an ethereal interior that aimed to inspire students to achieve new heights of learning. The stucco dome, gilded with Dutch metal that has a golden appearance, is composed of six levels of coffered rosettes set in diamonds that decrease in size as they approached the oculus, which was originally composed of Tiffany glass. The decorative stucco was directly tied into the Guastavino tile that structurally supports the dome. The oculus, which once the main source of light, was filled in, and sixteen gym lights, affixed to it, during the late twenty century.
At the foot of the dome is a balcony with sixteen plaster statues, which were based on ancient prototypes and represent one of four female personifications associated with learning, each of whom is represented four times.
Sixteen imported Connemara marble columns with Corinthian capitals, gilded with Dutch metal, line the circular reading room. MacCracken was insistent that these columns, rather than plainer or plaster columns with steel structures, be used. The polished green marble surfaces reflect light, as do the gold of the dome, the inscriptions, and capitals, creating a textured interplay of luminosity and color.
The entablature supported by the Connemara columns is inscribed with an abridged quotation from Book One of Milton’s Paradise Lost: “And chiefly thou o spirit that dost prefer before all temples that upright heart and pure. Instruct me for thou knowest what in me is dark. Illumine what is low raise and support.” Wreathes, a symbol of civic achievement in the classical world, are interspersed in between words of this inscription. The position of the inscription is well-considered. One enters the reading room through the main entrance, one immediately see “thou o spirit,” directly below the word “wisdom.” Together these words should lift the spirits of young students to lofty heights of wisdom. The oculus would literally help illumine students’ minds with light, just as the inscription inspired them. Thus, the inscription and architecture yet again convey a unified message to the library’s users. So again the inscription contributes to a specific atmosphere of erudite learning.
Along the walls behind the colonnade, there are inscriptions with the names of important writers, scholars, poets, philosophers, scientists, and jurists from all cultures. Again these great academics, intellectuals, and scholars were meant to inspire the students to excel. Behind these walls were bookcases and hidden doors. The original book call desk remains and is inscribed with a gilded Latin inscription.
There is also a small, elevated walkway between the rear walls and the Connemara columns. Along the walls are sixteen engaged columns, directly behind the Connemara columns. These engaged columns are made of plaster around a steel core. They are a clever use of modern materials and technology, in which modernity is masked behind traditional architecture. Many of White’s buildings did this, a reflection of how he designed and what type of architecture his clients desired. Study rooms—now offices—and stacks were carefully hidden behind the doors and fake walls of the circular reading room.
The windows in the Gould Memorial Library are various colors of Tiffany glass, including green, red, and yellow, whose hue varies from orange to ruddy brown depending on how much light comes through. These windows pick up the greens in the marble, the golden hues of the dome and the red in the marble of the inlaid floor, creating a dynamic interior.
The Gould Memorial Library commemorated Jay Gould. Helen Gould’s donation to name the library in memory of her father appears to have been an attempt to rehabilitate his public image. Gould was in talks with MacCracken to donate funds to support engineering at NYU, but these plans were unfinalized when Gould died. The grand, opulent, and evocative architecture of the classical past and European culture, would have been suitable for Gould, who was buried in a lavish, Ionic temple in Woodlawn Cemetery, in the Bronx. Together the library and its doors celebrated the lives and achievements of two great, but flawed, men.
Like the Pantheon, the Gould Memorial Library was a true feat, an inspiring place where architecture exalted students to strive to their greatest academic and intellectual heights. However, it also became a symbol of New York City’s troubles only seventy years later. In the late 1960s and early 1970s New York City was facing some of its great challenges, including social disruption, urban blight, and economic decline. Bronx arguably experienced the most disruption, change and economic challenges of any of the boroughs. New York University had major financial issues and was on the brink of financial collapse. In order to cut some of its losses, NYU sold the University Heights Campus, which became home to Bronx Community College in 1973. The library languished as there were not funds to maintain it in the last part of the twentieth century; tens of millions of dollars are needed to restore the building to its former greatness.
But the Bronx as a borough is resurging, as is Bronx Community College, CUNY. In 2012, the campus completed construction of the North Hall and new library, which were designed and built by Robert A. M. Stern Architects. The new library was modeled on the Bibliothèque Ste.-Geneviève in Paris by Henri Labrouste. However, the materials, Roman brick and limestone, as well as the metal detailing, including palmettes, was in keeping with the Gould Memorial Library. This new library, like its predecessor, contributes to the creation of an atmosphere of learning and scholarship to inspire the students of Bronx Community College.
The Gould Memorial Library continues to impress visitors in the twenty-first century. One hopes that Stanford White’s reinterpretation of Pantheon and a more general interest in the Bronx can attract interest and financial support so that the library can relive its former glory not only as the architectural centerpiece of Bronx Community College, but also an architectural anchor for the University Heights Neighborhood.
Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis is Assistant Professor of Liberal Studies and Middle Eastern Studies at the Graduate Center, the City University of New York. This essay is adapted from her new book, Classical New York: Discovering Greece and Rome in Gotham, co-edited with Matthew S. McGowan, which is available from Fordham University Press. To learn more about her research, check out her podcast, Antiquity in Gotham, which launches this fall.