RETHINKING A MAJOR BCC LANDMARK
On Friday, March 8, Bronx Community College students, faculty, staff and alumni joined local figures from the worlds of education, economic development and the arts in the elegant marble Rotunda of BCC’s beloved Gould Memorial Library to brainstorm potential uses of the very building they were in.
Gould Memorial Library hasn’t served as an actual library in a half century. During that time, it has been designated a National Historic Landmark by the National Parks Service, served as a set for numerous movies and television shows and hosted major events including film screenings, mayoral debates and speeches by presidential hopefuls. But this marvel of late 19th century Beaux Arts architecture remains underutilized. And with expected costs of a planned restoration perhaps as high as $80 million, a major role for the building in the life of the borough is essential to justify that price tag.
And so a day-long symposium was convened by a team of graduate students from the New York University Wagner School of Public Service, who have taken this on as their Capstone project. NYU’s participation was fitting — legendary architect Stanford White designed Gould Memorial Library (or “GML” as it is known across campus) for the uptown campus of NYU seven decades before it became the current home of BCC. NYU alumni from that earlier era in University Heights were among the symposium attendees.
The morning began with networking and greetings from Bronx Community College President Thomas A. Isekenegbe. “It’s cold outside but it’s warm in here because of the presence of all of you,” he said. “The work you do here will impact the students sitting at your table today and the students who will be here in the future.”
The president then thanked the Save GML Advisory Board — and was followed at the podium by two of the Board’s co-chairs, architects Sherida Paulsen and Samuel White. First Ms. Paulsen observed, “This morning we are going to do what every good architect and planner does when they start a project — we’re going to understand the existing conditions. And in the afternoon, the Capstone team will walk you through a series of targeted questions to think about how we can approach the reuse of the building.”
Samuel White – a great-grandson of GML’s master builder Stanford White — then briefed the symposium on the fascinating history of the building, with photos and architectural renderings over a period of a century. “So that is Gould Memorial Library,” he concluded. “A building of immense symbolic significance, but very difficult to program. But I’m sure with a group like the one we have today, we’ll come up with some great ideas.”
The Capstone team of NYU graduate students also spoke, pointing to case studies of the restoration of similar buildings from The Rotunda at the University of Virginia to the Founders Library of Howard University.
A tour of GML’s interior spaces, usually unseen by the public, followed.
Then came the major purpose of the day. The attendees broke up into small groups to develop ideas for a future renovated GML. Some of the proposals included an arts center with studios and galleries and performing spaces; a gathering area for students; a home for national institutes around issues important to the College and surrounding community; a conference space to compete with Manhattan’s more expensive venues and more. Student Government Association President Carolina Valenzuela spoke up for a strongly student-focused GML, complete with such simple necessities as quiet spaces for individual reading and study.
A day’s worth of information, brainstorming and debate came to an end by mid-afternoon. Next step: The NYU Capstone team will analyze the strengths, weaknesses and feasibility of the ideas generated by the symposium and issue a findings report, which will be shared with the college community in the Fall.