This is the fifth installment of the series, the New York City that Never Was (Part I: Buildings,  Part II: Bridges,  Part III: Roadways and Railways, Part IV Zoning)

What if Carrère and Hastings hadn’t designed the Main Branch of the New York Public Library? Would New Yorkers still have Patience and Fortitude guarding their books? Would the library have become the monumental landmark that it is? The answers to these questions and more were addressed in the article, “The Tilden Trust Library: What Shall It Be?” by John Bigelow, which  appeared in the  September 1892 issue of Scribner’s Magazine.  Billings wrote the  article because he was personally concerned about fate of the Tilden Trust (one of the three collections that formed the basis of the Library’s collection), as  a trustee of the Tilden Estate.

The article contained the following designs by Ernest Flagg (who is most famous for designing the Singer Building) for the proposed Library Building:

Provided how monumental and beautiful Flagg’s designs were, one must ask why they were not chosen. To answer that question, we must return to Dr. John Shaw Billings.  In addition to being a trustee of the Tilden Trust,  Dr. John Shaw Billings  was a fascinating individual. He was a distinguished surgeon, hygienist, educator (he developed Johns Hopkins University’s medical curriculum), bibliographer, museum curator, medical planner and administrator. Furthermore, while serving as deputy surgeon general of the U.S. Army, he founded the National Library of Medicine, and at the age of fifty-eight, Billings became the director of the New York Public Library. Shortly thereafter, in April 1897, Billings sketched out what he envisioned the main branch of the library should look like. His sketch formed the basis for  Carrère and Hastings’ final design. He lived to see the opening of the library to great fanfare in 1911, and died two years later. On April 25, 1913, the Library held a  memorial meeting  where Billings was  eulogized by the likes of Andrew Carnegie and William Barclay Parsons and was even compared to Julius Caesar (one  eulogy  began “[w]e  come not to bury a great man, but to praise him.”).

For More Untapped coverage of the New York Public Library:

The John Purroy Mitchel Memorial Flagstaffs at the NYPL

In Search of John Purroy Mitchel: The Boy Mayor

Urban Archaeology: the Croton Distributing Reservoir

“Write All Night”: An All-Night Scavenger Hunt in the New York Public Library

Library Walk


The New York City that Never Was Series:

The New York City that Never Was: Part I Buildings

The New York City that Never Was: Part II Bridges

The New York City that Never Was: Part III Roadways and Railways

The New York City that Never Was: Part IV  A Visionary Dream of the 1916 Zoning Resolution

The New York City that Never Was: Part V The New York Public Library

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  5. Michael Miscione says:

    You asked, Why were Flagg’s designs not chosen? Because the Tilden Trust could never afford to build such a grand structure. Bigelow had Flagg create the speculative designs in an effort to both seduce and shame the city government into constructing the library edifice; the trust, meanwhile, would expend its relatively modest funds assembling and administering the new library’s book collection. Mayor Gilroy did not take Bigelow’s bait. He offered to sell the trust the City Hall building instead! I kid you not. There were proposals to raze City Hall in the mid-1890s, and the mayor thought he’d be killing two birds with one stone by offering the dismantled building to the trust. Bigelow warmed up to Gilroy’s offer and asked Flagg to create new sketches. The resulting design showing a moderately reconfigured City Hall building planted at 42nd St. & Fifth Ave. is a real jaw-dropper. Opposition to this scheme, led by a preservation-minded trustee, Andrew H. Green, killed the plan. With no city help immediately forthcoming, the trust was forced to consider more realistic options for its building, like partnering with a college or consolidating with one or more other existing libraries. Eventually the trust returned to the idea of a independent site at 42nd and Fifth, but by then Billings, a new trustee who really knew how a library should be designed, was part of the team, and his ideas carried the day.

    • benjamin waldman says:

      Thank you very much for providing an insightful answer to the question “why were Flagg’s designs not chosen.” I have been reading Reginald Pelham Bolton’s “Washington Heights Manhattan: Its Eventful Past” and have been amazed at how much of our City’s past was lost or was almost lost around the turn of the twentieth century. I will now have to add City Hall to that list. Luckily for us, Andrew Haswell Green and the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society and other similar groups helped preserve many of New York City’s historical treasures.

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