A Debacle at Amherst College and the Future of the New York Public Library

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The fate of the magisterial Main Branch of the New York Public Library, guarded by two lions who watch over Fifth Avenue, could be related to that of an unbuilt science center at Amherst College.

NYPL President Tony Marx – who was Amherst’s president until 2011 – is staking his reputation on an ambitious plan that will replace seven floors of cast iron stacks in the landmarked 1911 building with a fully circulating library. Meanwhile, two million research volumes will move under adjacent Bryant Park. The plan has been highly contested both for its alleged tampering with an architectural gem and what many perceive will be increased difficulty in retrieving books indispensable to scholars.

Opponents of Marx’s plan – some of whom have filed lawsuits – may find ammunition in a Boston Globe story published yesterday. It is the tale of a gleaming $245 million science center that would, presumably, make Amherst a more competitive research institution.

The problem is that, after $19 million, Amherst has scrapped the original plan for the project. Apparently, poor planning had not led to a proper estimation of what it would cost to build the center partly underground. Nor had college administrators realized that construction near the student center would cause a major annoyance. Both of these factors have led current Amherst officials to determine that the project, as is, should not move forward.

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(UPDATE: A spokesperson for Amherst tells The Wire: "The project is still going to happen, just on a different site on campus, and the goal is to remain on track for the original 2018 completion date.")

The Boston Globe reports:

Amherst, [President Carolyn A. “Biddy”] Martin said, would still build a new science center, but it was going back to the drawing board to come up with a new site and a new design. “Fiscal responsibility demands that we pivot to a less difficult site,” Martin wrote to the Amherst community.

Of course, the science center disaster is not Marx’s fault. But he was the one who ultimately green-lighted the project; in a 2010 letter announcing his departure for the NYPL, Marx mentions the science center as one of his accomplishments.

The Globe says that the debacle holds “a lesson to the many other academic institutions grappling with how to build bold science facilities.” But it might also be a lesson about ambitions and the difficulty of realizing them. A lesson that the renovation plan’s detractors will surely want to stick to Marx. They could argue that the library consolidation/stack removal – which will cost $350  million – is just the Amherst science center writ large, a disaster in the making.

For all its merits – and there are many, without a doubt – Marx’s plan is tampering with one of New York’s most beloved buildings and cultural institutions. What happened in Amherst cannot be repeated on Fifth Avenue.

Images: Behnisch Architects; New York Public Library.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.