There is so much in a name

Updated: Apr 27 2008, 05:35am hrs
The name will appear five times on the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue: at the base of each of the two centre columns leading to the century-old buildings main entrance; on a gold plaque on the marble floor just outside the front door; and in the marble of the pedestals beneath the lamps at the librarys 42nd Street entrance.

Last week, the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission officially agreed to change the name of the librarys main building to the Stephen A Schwarzman Building, and revealed just how that name would be, if not shouted, then quietly yet firmly spoken to the world. The main building of the library is being renamed after Schwarzman, a Wall Street financier, who contributed $100 million to the institution, one of the largest gifts to a cultural institution in New York City. The gift is going toward a $1 billion overhaul of the library system. While some opponents of the proposal worried that it could set a dangerous precedent, Paul LeClerc, the librarys president, promised the commission that there would never again be another name carved into the buildings facade.

Schwarzman will join a roster of magnates who were instrumental in the creation of the library: Samuel J Tilden, John Jacob Astor and James Lenox. Their family names which appear only once in foot-tall lettering adorn the attic of the main facade in larger letters than those in which Schwarzmans name will appear, a fact that LeClerc cited in making his case that it was completely in keeping with the tradition of the library to prominently recognise major gifts from private donors and the intimate tie between philanthropy and The New York Public Library.

LeClerc used the word staggering to describe Schwarzmans gift, which was given with no conditions. Whereas the original contribution of the librarys founders brought the library into existence in the 20th century, LeClerc said, Schwarzmans largesse will allow it to thrive in the 21st.

Critics of the renaming of the library building said that they did not oppose honouring Schwarzman for his donation, but that they found the librarys approach excessive. The amount of the inscriptions and their proposed language, design and location take away from the restrained classical, austere grandeur of the Carrere and Hastings landmark and overshadows the original gift of the Astor Library, the Lenox Library and the Tilden Trust, said Nadezhda Williams, an associate at the Historic Districts Council.

Howard Mendes, the chairman of the Landmarks Committee of Community Board 5, where the library is located, said that his major objection was only to the carving of the name at the base of the pillars at the main entrance. The number of carvings is excessive, Mendes said. A better solution, he said, would be to keep the gold plaque and the inscriptions at the more discreet entrance and do away with Schwarzmans name out front.

LeClerc said that the method used to recognise donors on the inside of the building where hundreds of names are listed provided the starting point for considering how the name out front should look. Then there was a question of scale. The largest letters on the building spell The New York Public Library, and are 18 inches tall. Schwarzmans name is comparatively small, but since it is seen by passers-by almost at eye level, it will have a decidedly different impact.

Library officials expect that his name will be added some time in 2009. We would not be one of the great libraries in human history without philanthropy, LeClerc said. And this is a magnificent gift.

NY Times / Marc Santora