Gould Memorial Library
Hall of Fame Terrace and Sedgwick Avenue
Stanford White (McKim, Mead, and White)
A century ago Gould Memorial Library was the focal point of New York University’s new rural campus. Designed by New York’s leading architect, Stanford White; constructed inside and out of beautifully-crafted and expensive materials fit for the family memorial to millionaire Jay Gould; centerpiece of a matched ensemble of three buildings linked by a colonnade and sited on a massive stone podium overlooking the Harlem River valley: the library was unarguably the most distinguished building in the Bronx.
It still is—even though today’s visitors to Bronx Community College, which took over NYU’s University Heights campus in 1973, often pass Gould Library with only a glance. Like venerable buildings at many other colleges, it suffers from the loss of splendid isolation to an infill of neighbors in jostling styles. And in this crowd, the classic face of the library—a low dome rising over broad cornice, fronted by a porch whose triangular pediment is supported by a row of columns—may seem too familiar to deserve more than a nod of acknowledgement. A configuration dating from the Pantheon of ancient Rome, it has regularly reappeared in each era of classical revival. Thanks to the “City Beautiful” movement of the 1900s, we may still encounter it in many American cities, as a downtown bank or museum. It is even on the reverse of our Jefferson nickel—and it was Jefferson, with his red brick rotunda at the University of Virginia, who made it a model for American university libraries. (In fact, even as Gould Library was under construction, White’s partner Charles McKim was finishing a domed library for Columbia University in Manhattan.)
It will take some special attention, in other words, to recognize the distinct architectural personality of Gould Library. White, himself, in effect provided us with a private view when he designed what he called the “ambulatory,” a roofed colonnade curving behind the library, later appropriated for the Hall of Fame of Great Americans. To the west, this parapet walkway offers spectacular perspectives on the Manhattan hills (in 1900, wooded and undeveloped), Hudson River, and distant Palisades. In the other direction, it brings us close up to a building meant to appear, in some sense, comparably “picturesque”—dense and various in its ornamental effects. From our changing viewpoint, as we follow the walk, we take in the colors: light yellow to buff, irregularly varied, in the brick walls, contrasting with the superimposed limestone pilasters and cornices; the brilliant verdigris of the broad frieze, antefixes, and overlapping scales on the dome; the gold and white terracotta garlands which circle the drum. The textures of the surface differentiate themselves: long, thin “Roman” bricks; relief ornament on the Composite capitals and amazing frieze; an almost overwhelming multiplication of fine-detailed egg-and-dart moldings, dentils, ranks of upstanding anthemia. This neoclassical decoration is seen to have grown along the edges and in the folds of the building, heavily emphasizing what White called the “play of parts”—the transition between three shallow wings and an octagonal central torso, the repeated contrast of straight and raking cornices, and of both with the circular rim and the spherical climb of the dome.
Returning to the Library’s portico from the Hall of Fame, alive to the stylish and inventive ornament with which White has enriched his “austerely classic” design, we are still not prepared for what awaits us inside. White once again has taken a hand in arranging our response. But instead of an intimate examination, he has programmed a brief suspenseful delay. Inside the tall sculpted bronze doors of the porch we will find nothing but a constricted landing at the foot of a barrel-vaulted staircase, whose steepness obscures what is waiting above. The surroundings—geometrically-patterned Tiffany glass, pale yellow marble panels with matched veining, elongated bronze torcheres which taper to delicate fluted points—are coldly elegant. Not until we’ve climbed to another tight landing and passed through a doorway will we find ourselves in what the Landmarks Preservation Commission names “one of the great interior spaces in New York City,” where, abruptly, confined space is exchanged for great height, and pallor for richly saturated color and contrast. Sixteen thirty-foot columns of polished, deep-green Connemara marble support a circular entablature and limestone balcony on which statues of classical goddesses are stationed. Above their heads is the sixty-foot span of a hemispherical dome, gilded and intricately coffered, at the center of which a huge oculus opens, providing the only sunlight in the rotunda. (Or once did provide it. Today the oculus is sealed, and the sun replaced with floodlights.) Contrasting with the reflective brightness above, the reading room below is tonally dark—behind the green marble shafts, its cylindrical wall is ringed by three tiers of fir-green bookcases and doorways beneath gold lettered names of authorities in each discipline.
As he did on Gould’s exterior, White has revised his classical model, the Pantheon (the obvious source of the coffered dome and oculus, and the rotunda), loading it with “American Renaissance” ornament, moving this time not in the direction of the picturesque but of the symbolic sublime. The effect of a light beam projected from a bright upper dome toward lower shade evidently suggests the operation of spirit, but also of knowledge and education, and the library’s role in the university. Less obvious is the significance of the splendid columns that undergird the stone mezzanine. It’s implied in the quotation which circles the architrave just above their capitals, chosen by White (or his learned patron and collaborator, NYU’s Chancellor H.M. MacCracken), the words of the poet Milton asking to be instructed by the Holy Spirit: “What in me is dark, illumine,” and “What is low [in me], raise and support.”
Currently, the bookshelves of Gould Library are empty, having eventually been found insufficient, like those of other rotunda libraries (including the British Museum and Columbia University). But the building, victim of an arson attack in 1969, and neglected through the end of the last century, is today in impressive (and improving) condition, a happy change initiated with a grant from the Getty Trust in 2004.
Bronx Community College and Abigail McQuade