What if Carrere 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 CarrÃ¨re 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.”).
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