Without naming her newspaper’s late architecture critic, the Wall Street Journal‘s Jennifer Maloney on Wednesday published the New York Public Library’s rejoinder to one of the main gripes voiced by Ada Louise Huxtable regarding that institution’s planned major overhaul of its flagship Fifth Avenue building (to be designed by Norman Foster).
Critics of the New York Public Library’s $300 million renovation plan have doubted whether its most important engineering challenge is even possible: the removal of seven levels of century-old book stacks that support the Fifth Avenue building’s Rose Main Reading Room like a 53-foot-high Erector set.
Now officials have answered the skeptics [except for one who can no longer answer back]. They intend to install 12 new support columns in between the existing stacks, all while library patrons read in the vaulted space above.
The bulk of the WSJ article explains this very complex engineering problem and details how Robert Silman‘s structural engineering firm plans to solve it. (Silman previously shored up both Frank Lloyd Wright‘s Guggenheim Museum and his Fallingwater, calling the latter, “not safe from the day it was built,” as I wrote in my WSJ piece about that renovation project.)
After reading Maloney’s step-by-step account of the delicate, complicated process of transferring the weight of the Main Reading Room to new supports, in order to remove the stacks (sending 1 million books to New Jersey) to make way for a new circulating library, you can’t help but think that Ada Louise may have been onto something.
In her final review for the WSJ last month, Huxtable observed:
Restoration and retrofitting would be easier and cheaper than supporting the reading room with the enormously complex and expensive [emphasis added] engineering needed during demolition and reconstruction.
One thing that Maloney’s otherwise comprehensive article didn’t reveal (probably because the Library didn’t say) is how much this high-wire engineering act is going to cost.
As quoted by Maloney, Silman tried to allay the fears of doubters in a presentation to a community board committee:
It can be done. It has to be done carefully. I assure you, we can do it.
The question remains: Should this be done to New York’s iconic temple of scholarship and at what cost?
Somewhere in a City of Angels (not Los Angeles, where her archives will reside), Ada Louise must be skeptically raising an eyebrow.