The Books Would Be Wet

by Don Friedman on March 10, 2017

That picture is the Croton Reservoir in 1879. It’s a drawing – a remarkably detailed and lifelike drawing – but a drawing nonetheless. The quiet street in the middle is Fifth Avenue and we’re looking south; the first visible cross street on the left is East 41st Street; the first cross street on the right, past the reservoir itself, is West 40th Street. The reservoir is on the future site of the New York Public Library.

Here’s a photograph from 1865:

The tallish building with the bay windows is the old 500 Fifth Avenue (here’s the new one), so the street in the foreground is Fifth Avenue again and we’re looking north and a little west.

The reservoir was a huge piece of infrastructure. It was a public symbol of the clean water that the Croton system promised and delivered, but more importantly it was the central distribution point for water within the city proper. The walkway at the top served as an elevated promenade, presumably only used in good weather.

By the time it was demolished in 1899 it was functionally obsolete, and the surrounding midtown neighborhood was no longer dominated by rowhouses. More importantly from an urbanist viewpoint, is that a block of blank, high stone walls is a dead block. The fact that it’s uninviting almost doesn’t matter, because other than that narrow promenade there was no place for people to go if they felt invited. When the neighborhood was semi-suburban and the reservoir was needed, this wasn’t as important, but by the end of the nineteenth century it was just a hole in the city.

The library itself is not exactly the busiest spot in midtown in terms of visits, but the steps out front and the side plazas are heavily-trafficked public spaces, and the building looks like a place a person might go, or want to go, and less like the bottom fifth of a pyramid. The thought experiment of keeping the reservoir as a form of conservation makes no more sense than keeping the els rather than building subways.

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