NY's Donnell Library: Spartan Beauty or a Plain Old Beast?

Does the exterior of a library matter...or only what's inside?

This article from NY Times Real Estate section asks rhetorically, "IS the 1955 Donnell Library on Manhattan's West 53rd Street a rare piece of midcentury Modernism? Or an empty suit of expressionless masonry?"

As the vacant building heads toward demolition in two years, a cadre of preservationists still hope to convince the Landmarks Preservation Commission that the limestone facade is not a nothing, but a something.

The Donnell was not supposed to be there at all. As John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s Art Deco complex was nearing completion in the early 1930s, he had the idea of extending Rockefeller Plaza, from 49th to 51st Streets, by a block, or better yet two blocks, to the north. That way, the Museum of Modern Art, a favorite Rockefeller cause, would preside over the plaza at 53rd Street, which he found a particularly attractive vision.

Now the Donnell is scheduled to be demolished to make way for a hotel with the library on the first floor.

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Donnell Library by C Gray in NYT

Mr. Gray's article, while not appreciating the fine architecture of the Donnell, (made of the same limestone as the bldgs in RockCenter), has many facts wrong. And this site should publish the corrections immediately because he eventually will make them. Rockefeller gave the land to the CIty and the City gave it to the Public Library. THis is a matter of public record. There are no air rights for sale from the DOnnell. THey sold them to TIshman years ago. The Donnell was found worthy of designation by the Federal and State historic properties organizations but LeClerc has not responded to the letter which he must do before it can be designated. The OE hotel has announced recently that they might even sell the property. Gray doesn't mention that the OE hotel must include a library in whatever building they put on the site or whatever building their buyer puts on it. The landmarks committee of COmmunity Board 5 believes the Donnell is worthy of Landmark status and so do I, the landmarks chair of the West 54-55 Street Block Association. THe NYPL that claims to want a good relationship with the community, has not delivered on its promise to provide us with proof of what they say it will cost to renovate the Donnell. THey did permit us entry to examine the Donnell which inside looks pretty good. Needs a new HVAC system and upgrade of the elevators, but otherwise, bring in the painters and buy some furniture-or take it back from the libraries they dispersed furniture to. And bring back the great mix of collections. THe auditorium looks as good as new. THe NYPL continue to do things undercover while we know that tax money covers 92% of their expenses.

Donnell Library preservation

Thanks to Ritasue for that excellent post. What has not yet been mentioned in this controversy is what has been lost in the 53rd St/Fifth Avenue area, which was once not only a museum and shopping destination but a kind of accidental cultural complex. Anchoring that complex were two institutions: the Museum of Modern Art and the Donnell Library Center. One could go to an exhibition or a film at MoMA straight across the street and do further research. Very convenient! Surrounding this complex were nice little places to have lunch (there was one in a long-gone brownstone right next door to the museum, and Burger Heaven on 53rd with its indirect lighting and teak furniture -- also long gone -- was another) and shops that purveyed not only fashion but cultural items as well, in particular the late lamented Doubleday shop at 53rd and 5th, with its up-to-the-minute record releases and supremely knowledgeable sales force. Just up the avenue was Rizzoli, a phenomenal luxury art book store. And both of these shops were open till midnight. With the disappearance of the Donnell, 53rd and Fifth might as well be Rodeo Road.

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