Saturday, June 28, 2014

Photo of the Day: The ‘Winged Wonder’ of Brooklyn

If, like me, you believe that a book is a work of art, then it is only right that a library should itself be a work of art. So it is with the Central Library of the Brooklyn Public Library. In mid-May, I was delighted to see it once again, after a lapse of nearly 30 years, across the street from the object of my commute that day, Prospect Park, at the intersection of Flatbush Avenue and Eastern Parkway on Grand Army Plaza.

It didn’t strike me at the time, as I was trying to make out gold leaf figures over the 5-foot-entrance of fine Art Deco detailing by sculptors Thomas Hudson Jones and Carl P. Jennewein. But the building is shaped like an open book—most appropriate, given that a library remains one of the bulwarks of free expression, and especially so for the Borough of Brooklyn, one of the most diverse places on this planet.

(If you’re trying to puzzle out how that open-book design works: The “spine” lies on Grand Army Plaza; the two open “pages” rest on Eastern Parkway and Flatbush Avenue.)

In its way, it’s a miracle the library exists at all in its present form. Construction halted on architect Raymond F. Almirall’s Beaux-Arts design because of cost concerns during WWI and the Depression. When building resumed in the 1920s, Almirall’s Greco-Roman ornamentation fell victim to the budget-cutters. Twenty-nine years after ground was broken,  the Central Library finally opened in 1941--as much a monument, in its way, as the freedom being contested all over the globe that year.

The library’s Web site mentions some of its more notable holdings, including the Brooklyn Eagle online. I suspect, from personal experience, that it may have even more esoteric holdings. 

During the 1980s, I received a fact-checking assignment for an article on Chinese cooking in a history magazine. I had occasion to conduct research on the origin of the fortune cookie at the library. A helpful reference librarian showed me a clipping file on this fascinating cultural artifact. One of these clips that especially made me chuckle, as a movie fan, described the premiere of the 1966 Jack Lemmon-Walter Matthau film The Fortune Cookie. An enterprising publicist managed to get thousands of these cookies flown out to the big event!

The airplane that transported all those fortune cookies is one “winged wonder”; another is the curiosity whetted by knowledge, mentioned in an inscription at the entrance to the Central Library by Roscoe Conklin Ensign Brown, a longtime member of the library’s board when construction stalled and then revived: 

"Here are enshrined the longing of great hearts and noble things that tower above the tide, the magic word that winged wonder starts, the garnered wisdom that never dies." 


Anonymous said...

Now there's a blast from the past. My Aunt worked at that branch for nearly 40 years. She started out in her teens as an operator, but her last years of service were spent working with the public at the front desk.

MikeT said...

Nice work, I think, if one can get it!