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By the Book: NY Public Library Project


By Jill M. Speegle

Historic buildings that house volumes of literary marvels deserve to be preserved and restored to their former glory… even if we are in an age more attuned to scroll than flip.

One historic library that’s received a massive exterior makeover is the iconic New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on Fifth Avenue.

A three-year, $50 million restoration project was completed in spring of 2011, just shy of the building’s 100th birthday.

The cleaning and restoration work, directed by Northbrook, IL-based architecture, design and engineering firm Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates Inc., earned the project team a 2013 Institute Honor Award for Architecture by the American Institute of Architects.

The general contractor on the project was Nicholson & Galloway.

Landmark Building

Designed in the Beaux-Arts style, the structure has been called one of the most important commissions of the architecture firm Carrère and Hastings.

The New York City-based architects won a design competition for the project in 1897. The monumental library cost $9 million to complete.

Opened in 1911, the New York Public Library was one of the largest marble buildings in the United States.

Between 30,000 and 50,000 visitors flocked to what was dubbed “The People’s Palace” on the day it opened, according to the library’s website.

The building was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965.

Exterior of New York Public Library

 Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates Inc., unless otherwise indicated

A massive exterior restoration has prepared the 100-year-old New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building to serve for another 100 years.

The 2008-11 comprehensive exterior restoration project was the first in the building’s history and, according to the library, will allow it to serve New York for another 100 years.

Surveying the Exterior

The project began with a 100 percent hands-on survey to evaluate the structure’s condition. The team used a tablet-based system to record findings while boom trucks, suspended scaffolds, and industrial rope provided the team with access to all areas of the building’s exterior.

 New York Public Library

 New York Public Library Digital Collection / Wikimedia Commons

The monumental library was designed by the architectural firm Carrère and Hastings. The image shows a view inside the architects’ workshop. The library model is behind them. 


A century’s worth of acid rain, diesel exhaust and other pollutants plagued the iconic building’s majestic exterior, according to the architect.

Many distress conditions—spalls, deteriorated ornamental features, cracks, and unsound or destabilized stone units—required specific, localized repairs.

One-third of the building’s 20,000 white marble blocks were in need of repair or replacement, according to project details on Ornamental elements in the cornice and on column capitals were deteriorated. Pediment sculptures were also in need of repair. For example the iconic lions were missing noses, mouths and ears.

Repairs for these conditions varied, depending on the type of architectural feature.

Scope of the Work

The restorative work on the library’s facade included cleaning, repointing of masonry joints, and targeted protective surface treatments, according to a spokesman from Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates.


Architects and engineers used a tablet-based system to record findings during the hands-on survey.

Work on the historic building also involved the following: systemic repairs; repair of the roof; restoration of the historic bronze windows and doors; restoration of the raised plazas or “approaches” upon which the structure is placed; and localized repair or replacement of deteriorated elements.

Perhaps one of the most remarkable aspects of the project was that the restoration team was able to use marble from the same quarry in Vermont that supplied the original construction, noted.

Cleaning, Treating Marble

Cleaning and treating the marble on one of the largest marble buildings in the U.S. was no easy task.

The work included overall, specialized, and localized treatments in different combinations, depending on the substrate configuration and soiling patterns observed, the firm noted.

Soap, cycled steam, as well as supplemental cycled water misting, micro-abrasives and poultices were used to clean the stone.

Further, WJE noted that ammonium-oxalate treatments were applied to “preferentially consolidate friable surfaces in conjunction with lime-based shelter coat treatments to provide sacrificial protection to the stone surfaces.”

Hydrophobic and antimicrobial treatments were also applied at select areas, according to the firm.

Repairing, Reconstruction

Many of the repairs made during the course of the project were preventative in nature, designed to assure long-term integrity and control deterioration, WJE said.


New York Public Library before

Spalls, deteriorated ornamental features, cracks,  unsound or destabilized stone units, and other distress conditions required specific, localized repairs.

Systemic repairs to the marble included repointing of masonry joints, lead weather caps at skyward-facing joints, drips and ledge flashings, and bird controls, the firm said.

The exterior walls contain 100,000 linear feet of joints, roughly 20 miles, noted. The team cut open the joints, repointed the block and then replaced the mortar. They also replaced stones, made patches and filled cracks throughout.

Pediment sculptures were repaired and masons carved new architectural details for column capitals, said.

“At the project’s conclusion, officials called it a textbook example of preservation,” according to

I have to agree. The project was definitely not one for the shelf.

Editor's Note: This blog was updated on May 22, 2015.


Jill M. Speegle

Jill Speegle is the Editor of Durability + Design News. She earned her B.A. in journalism and English as well as her J.D. from the University of Arkansas. In Sketches, Jill shares her thoughts on a number of topics that may be of interest to the D+D community, including architecture, interior design, green building, historic restoration, and whatever else catches her radar.



Tagged categories: Architecture; Color; Design; Green building; Interior design; Restoration; Cracks; Historic Preservation; Maintenance + Renovation; Maintenance programs; Masonry; Preservation; Renovation; Repair materials; Stone

Comment from ELIZABETH FRENCHMAN, (11/4/2013, 10:36 AM)

I don't believe Lord Foster's reno is a done deal; at least we all hope it is not!

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (11/5/2013, 8:40 AM)

The exterior does sound like a renovation/preservation done right. Plus, it makes sense to me to get the outside fixed (and hopefully correct all leaks) before tackling the inside.

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