By Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis
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.
Designed by Stanford White and modeled on the Pantheon, the Gould Memorial Library was the center piece of New York University’s University Heights Campus, located along 184th Street in the Bronx. The construction of the library and the University Heights Campus was rooted in the challenges facing the University of the City of New York in the late nineteenth century. The University of the City of New York, renamed New York University (NYU) in 1896, needed to attract more students and financial support from New York’s philanthropists. The university responded to these obstacles by hiring Henry Mitchell MacCracken as Chancellor in 1891. Upon his appointment, MacCracken focused on creating a new campus uptown that had a calm, reflective environment for undergraduate students. Washington Square, where the NYU was located, had become increasingly commercial and too busy in MacCraken’s opinion. MacCracken identified the Mali estate, which was situated on a high bluff overlooking the Harlem River about ten miles north of Washington Square in the Bronx, as the location for his new University Heights Campus.
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.
The library had a Greek cross plan with a central dome. The eastern facade of the library has a classical-style, deep porch with a double triangular pediment, a clear evocation of the Pantheon’s porch. At the apex of the upper pediment was an acroterion, the wreathed head of a helmeted female figure, who looks like either Minerva or Athena, the Roman or Greek Goddess of Wisdom respectively. From her position at the top of the upper pediment she watches over campus as the guardian of knowledge and learning.
The library is accessed through a deep, hexastyle porch with fluted columns, composed of multiple limestone drums, topped by Corinthian capitals. The main entrance to the library is through the doors that commemorated the life and work of Stanford White, who had been shot dead by Harry Thaw, the husband of his former mistress Evelyn Nesbit. Commissioned by his family and friends, and designed by his son, these large bronze doors are executed in a Renaissance style, reminiscent of the great doors of Tuscan churches and baptisteries.
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.
They can be identified by their attributes and through comparisons to ancient sculpture. Two of the statues are likely Polyhymnia, the muse of sacred poetry, and Mnemosyne, or the personification of Memory, technically the mother of the muses. The other two statues may be Calliope, the muse of Epic poetry, because she is holding a tablet, Calliope’s attribute. Lastly there may be Urania, the muse of Astronomy, who appears to hold a globe in her left hand and in her right hand a compass. She would be a highly suitable inclusion, as she would represent the sciences in this Pantheon of learning. Despite being only four feet tall, they appear life-sized from below. Like the classical goddess of wisdom, who was located atop the upper pediment of the east porch, these muses are meant to inspire the students below. At the level of the muses was an abridged quotation from the book of Job 28:12-14; 28:22, from Webster’s translation of the Bible, inscribed on the haunch of the Dome. The first line reads: “But were shall wisdom be found [and] where is the place of understanding.” The word, wisdom, is on axis with the main entrance into the reading room, so it is visually prominent when one enters the library. The interior inscriptions and sculpture emphasize that the library is a place of wisdom and learning.
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.
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