Co-Working, Circa 1917

A century before there was WeWork and A/D/O, Camp David and Electropositive, The Farm and Primary and NeueHouse and The Yard and the 200 other co-working spaces in New York City, there was the library. 

The Rose Reading Room of the New York Public Library, to be precise, the great granddaddy of co-work spaces. Restored and reopened to its original 1917 splendor in the fall of 2016, it’s a Beaux-Arts antidote to the modern, highly amenitized spaces that have crawled from the Millennial ooze, a reminder that work has been a social affair since long before the founders of WeWork monetized “community”. (Not to disparage their efforts: WeWork is now the second-biggest private office tenant in New York, according to Recode, up from fourth in 2017).

In many ways, the Rose Room is severe, as workspaces go: in its vastness—78 feet by 297 feet, roughly the length of two city blocks—you can’t go get an espresso, none is allowed; no kale and quinoa bowls will be brought to your table; foosball is something you can research but not play here; child care, forget about it; the comfort of a washroom involves navigating an entrance and wide corridor choked with clumps of awe-struck tourists; and happy hour you’ll find in any number of fine establishments within a short stroll of the Reading Room—in summer, it’s the leafy outdoor bar right out back of the library facing Bryant Park. WeWork would call that an amenity.

But you are, after all, here to work. So, depending on the urgency of productivity, and your proclivity for (whispered) sociability, you choose a seat in a shaft of sunlight near one of the seven vast arched windows or near a neighbour fenced in by reference books, you maybe nod to the person in the oak armchair beside you, maybe not. 

Then it’s just you, a gleaming oak table and chair and one of the 80 or so brass lamps, and the task before you. Along with an internet full of rabbit holes down which to lose yourself, but still. 

It’s when you lift your eyes heavenward—52 feet up—that your labours are rewarded, as were those of the Nobel laureates, knowledge seekers, inventors, entrepreneurs, lonely hearts and slackers who came before you. Elevated you all are, ernest young coders and spry old farts, by the stunningly detailed woodwork framing billowing clouds in a pink that must be sunrise. If a new idea cannot dawn here, it is not meant to be born. 

Alexandra Schwartz of the New Yorker remarked that “The Rose Reading Room is luxurious in the way that only certain shared spaces can be. Its grandeur attracts its visitors, and is in turn amplified by their presence: the true urban symbiosis”. 

And like many, many city libraries—and unlike most shared work spaces—the Rose Room is a free-for-the-entering, no-application necessary space that asks only that you recognize that you’re part of something bigger than your own personal needs, thirsts, hungers and desires. That’s a luxury.


story © Dianna Carr         images © Francis Tremblay 

You can see a time lapse of the thousands of books being reshelved after the renovation of the Rose Room.

video © Max Touhey Photography

music © As Colorful As Ever by Broke For Free