Libraries Round the World: Without a Ceiling or Walls

Hidden behind the vibrant green northern tree line of Bryant Park in New York City lies an open-air library. A designated Reading Room where visitors can temporarily borrow books, newspapers, and magazines during the spring, summer, and fall. Trying to read while wearing a thick parka on a cold winter day outside wouldn’t be much fun! Outdoor seating and tables are available all over on a first-come, no reservation basis.

The Reading Room’s Southern View Across the Park

Bryant Park, unofficially Manhattan’s Town Square, is centrally located south of 42nd Street. The green oblong shape attracts visitors all year with dining, picnicking, and shopping options. When we visited last week, the lawn was closed to let the sod rejuvenate and set down new roots for reopening later.

Plenty of Dining and Shopping Options Near the Reading Room

NYC’s main library, aka Bryant Park Library, was closed for renovation too. The library’s grand entrance is on 5th Avenue. It’s also called the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building – a way to thank him for a recent $100 million contribution! 

The Flagship Library with the Marble Lions, Named Patience and Fortitude, Lazing Outside 

The history of the park goes way back. Manhattan’s name is reportedly a Lenni Lenape Native American word meaning “island of many hills.” The European settlers and New York’s governor established this specific public area in 1686. Later, George Washington and his rebelliously patriotic troops raced across the park to escape from the British. 

Some Serious Ping Pong Competitions Next Door

In 1822, the city used it as a potter’s field, a burial ground for the unknown, poor, and unclaimed dead. Coincidentally, the libraries much loved lions were sculpted by a man named Potter. In the 1830s, the Croton Reservoir was constructed, including a four-acre man-made lake, where the library now stands. 

Karen and the “Where are We?” Map

The state-of-the-art reservoir had massive 50’ high and 25’ thick walls. Visitors could stroll along the top to view the rapidly growing metropolis. Reservoir Park, the precursor to today’s Bryant Park, was set up in 1870. Traces of the reservoir, torn down in 1900, can still be seen from inside the library.

Western View from the Reading Room of 6th Avenue, aka the Avenue of the Americas

A couple of cool buildings once stood here. An observatory and the tallest tower in town had views of Staten Island, Queens, and New Jersey, but in 1856 it was lost to fire. The New York Crystal Palace, a glass and metal structure, exhibited industrial advances, consumer goods, and art. Sadly, it burned down after five short years in 1858. 

View of the Art Deco Empire State Building from 1931 (on the far right)

During the Civil War, Union Army troops camped out in the park. In 1884, the square was renamed Bryant Park to honor William Cullen Bryant. He was a poet, newspaper editor, and civic reformer. Perhaps inspired by the wordsmith, the city completed the beautiful and still standing Beaux-Arts public library in 1911.

Across the Newly Sodded Lawn to the Back of the Main Library

In the 1970s, Bryant Park was a dangerous drug hangout. But things improved gradually in the 1980s, and by the 1990s, office workers were invading during their lunch hour. The city improved the park with better maintenance, temporary kiosks, restaurants, landscape redesign, and public events, giving people a reason to return. It’s been a popular destination ever since. 

The Hustle and Bustle on the NW Corner: Avenue of the Americas & 42nd Street

The Reading Room is also the place to borrow ping pong, chess, and other game equipment. Perhaps I’ve inspired you to stop by for a visit when you’re in NYC, or at least showed you a bit of literary history.

A Backward Glance and Fond Goodbye to the “Under the Trees” Reading Room

Karen Stensgaard’s second home will always be NYC. A demo of her third novel, PROJECT ONION, is on the way and the final should be published soon. Stay tuned for more library exploration photo-blogs to celebrate the Grand Reopening of 2021!


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