Recent exposés on the Grolier Club from both The New York Times and the Spectrum cable news channel New York 1 highlight a “secret door” in the library. The door is a bookcase that swings out from the wall to reveal a spiral staircase leading to a mezzanine level. The library was designed by its original architect, Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue (1869-1924), to have these stately charms – black and white tile floors, wooden alcove bookcases, imposing busts of famous authors – but these charms are a veneer to functionality. Our 1918 building has a Georgian façade projecting a sense of domesticity, but underneath the clean brick and polished wood is a state-of-the-art (for 1918) steel construct designed to hold the weight of books and protect them from fire. The secret door illustrates this merging of antiquarian delight and functionality.
Secret bookcase doors conjure images of dark Victorian mansions with hidden chambers, but the eighteenth-century in England was their heyday. In this century, England’s international profile was rising, and the aristocracy adopted an older classical style of architecture, particularly an adaptation of Andrea Palladio (1508-1580), to embody their new-found status. Neo-Palladian English manors required a large library, but neoclassicism’s precepts of symmetry and unity often did not leave room for doors . Architects installed “jib doors” with fake books to maintain the appearance of the symmetry while allowing for some playful functionality. In a way, it was a superficial contraption, intended primarily to preserve the aesthetics of the library.
The Grolier Club’s jib door does preserve the aesthetics of the library, but in some ways it has more in common with movable compact shelving than neo-Palladian library architecture. The Grolier Club had years of experience running out of shelf space for books before building its current clubhouse. The library is designed to use as much space for books as possible, incorporating a mezzanine with shelving and a staircase to reach it. The jib door gives access to the staircase while providing extra shelving where there otherwise would be none, albeit in the most charming way possible. Like the building façade, this little corner of the library projects the feeling of a grand, old-fashioned manor, but to the core it is focused on the serious business of books.
By Scott Ellwood
Holzenberg, Eric. “A Suitable Club Building,” 1998 (unpublished, illustrated lecture). Box 22, folder 5, Grolier Club House Committee Records, 1884-2017, The Grolier Club of New York.
Potten, Ed. “Hidden in Plain View: Decoration and Double Meaning in the English Private Library,” pp. 706-731. The Book Collector. Ed. James Fleming. Vol. 67, no. 4. Gloustershire: The Collector, Ltd., 2018. Pp. 709-715.