Archivist’s Angle: The History of Bobst Library
April 15, 2017
By Claire Ashley Wolford (GSAS ’13) with additional contribution by Emily Rose Johnson (GSAS ’18).
Opened in 1973, the Elmer Holmes Bobst Library is one New York University’s most recognizable buildings. Situated at the southeast corner of Washington Square Park, Bobst’s Longmeadow red stone façade is a trademark of the NYU campus.
Prior to the construction of Bobst Library, NYU was struggling to find space to provide research resources to its students. In 1950, the director of libraries noted that New York University’s libraries were “… scrambled together in a manner not calculated to produce the fullest satisfaction to any class of library patron.”
By 1963 the University was storing books in numerous locations, many of which were not suitable for long-term storage and did not provide students with a place to study. Recognizing these shortcomings, plans were underway for a new library, one which would finally offer the NYU community a large, centralized location to access the University’s extensive resources under one roof. The new library was made possible in large part by a donation from Elmer Holmes Bobst, a philanthropist and leader in the pharmaceutical world.
In 1964, NYU President James Hester asked that two firms submit designs for the new library. One of the firms, Warner, Burns, Toan, and Lunde proposed a 22-story modernist building; but it was the 12-story design submitted by Philip Johnson and Richard Foster that was selected. Prior to designing Bobst Library, the two architects had collaborated on projects such as the Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut; the New York State Pavilion for the 1964 New York World's Fair; and the New York State Theater (now the David H. Koch Theater) at Lincoln Center.
Construction began in the late 1960s. The project and design were not without its detractors. Many felt the library’s bulk overshadowed the smaller buildings that surrounded the park, but overall the new library was heralded as an architectural and functional success. The building was faced in red sandstone and the interior was dominated by a large 100 x 100-foot atrium that continued up to an illuminated ceiling. Each floor was constructed with a walkway around the atrium, surrounded by gold anodized railings, and the marble floor was designed to mimic the pattern of the San Giorgio Maggiore Church in Venice.
Bobst Library opened on September 12, 1973, bringing what were formerly eight separate divisional libraries (with 4.5 million volumes) under one roof. A New York Times article from 1973 praised the building’s use of open space, including five two-story reading rooms overlooking Washington Square Park, and the ease with which departments could be located saying, “It is difficult, after all, to get too far lost in a building with a 100-foot wide central court.”
Thanks to another donation from the Bobst family, the library’s lower four floors underwent renovations in 2003–2004 to create more functionality and a new gallery in the atrium named for Mamdouha S. Bobst. In the summer of 2012, each floor was fitted with a digitally inspired veil; the perforated aluminum screens, designed by Joel Sanders Architect, added visual interest and safety to the expansive atrium. Recent renovations include new graduate study spaces, technology upgrades, and a new Avery Fisher Center for Music & Media. Thanks to the continued generosity of the Bobst estate, Bobst Library provides the NYU community with a home base as the University continues to grow.
A version of this article was originally published in the September 2012 issue of Connect.