The $12 million facelift that's returned a New York 'rose' to its former glory

Story highlights

  • The historic Rose Main Reading Room in the New York Public Library has undergone a $12 million renovation
  • The beloved room reopens to the public this week

(CNN)The New York Public Library (NYPL) sees more than two and a half million people walk through the imposing doors of its Stephen A. Schwarzman central research center every year.

Located on Fifth Avenue and 42nd street, one of the highlights of the magnificent building's early 20th century design is its historic Rose Main Reading Room.
    However, since 2014 -- when one of the ceiling's plaster rosettes fell 52 feet to the floor -- the space, along with the adjacent Bill Blass Public Catalogue room, has been closed for repairs and renovation.
    The newly-restored reading room will reopen to visitors this week, along with a photo exhibition of 70 images that document the library's history.
    CNN Style spoke with Bill Kelly, Director of Research Libraries at the NYPL about the spectacular $12 million-dollar renovation.
    CNN: What prompted the renovation of the room and why did the NYPL feel it was important?
    Kelly: One of the plaster rosettes fell from the ceiling, fortunately in the middle of the night because it was falling from a height of 52 feet (almost 16 meters) and someone could have been killed. So it was not an option.
    We had to do it and we had to do it the right way. Not simply for the security of our patrons and our staff, but this is one of the greatest buildings certainly in New York City, and I would argue in the country.
    We feel that we are stewards of this space and it's our responsibility to take good care of it and to hand it off to the subsequent generations in as good of a shape as we received it and hopefully better.
    CNN: What were the main challenges to restoring part of a building that was constructed in the 1900s?
    Kelly: Let's start with the fact that the ceiling is 52 feet high. We had to build scaffolding that was 42 feet (13 meters) high so we could access it. That was a time consuming and expensive process.
    We also needed to act responsibly in terms of the period pieces and be faithful to the architectural vision of Carrère and Hastings, who designed the building at the beginning of the 20th century.
    That meant finding people who specialize in restoration, and recasting some materials. Fortunately, all of the ceiling is made of plaster.
    CNN: Where were the books stored during the renovation?
    Kelly: All of the books went to storage as a formality at our space under Bryant Park.
    We were so delighted to watch them come back. It was lonely to be in that space without the books.
    CNN: Which features were you most impressed by after you saw the renovated reading and catalogue rooms?
    Kelly: There are lots of things and everyone has their favorites. The ceiling is spectacular. The mural on the ceiling has been restored. The extraordinary rosettes, the renaissance suggestions that are up there.
    Kelly: But for me the great emblem is the windows. They are a soaring space that bring natural light to the room which has a functional capacity and, for many of us, a symbolic function.
    The history of evolvement we make available to people is echoed in the windows and the light and space they create for us.
    CNN: What is the role of the modern library, given how much information is consumed from digital devices?
    Kelly: It's a hybrid role. We are called upon to provide access to information in digital ways, beyond what one can simply find in Wikipedia on a smartphone.
    We are in the information business and while the modality for providing that information has changed, our role has not.
    What has happened with the explosion of technology is that the world of the libraries has expanded and grown, I would say geometrically.