Both the Astor and Lennox libraries were beginning to experience financial troubles by 1892, as a result of dwindling endowments and expanding collections. A New York attorney named John Bigelow presented a bold plan to combine the resources of the Astor and Lennox libraries to form the New York Public Library. His plan was finally signed on May 23, 1895 as an unprecedented example of private philanthropy for the public good.
The site chosen to place the new library was the Croton Reservoir, a popular strolling place located in a two-block section of Fifth Avenue between 40th and 42nd Streets. Dr. John Shaw Billings, the newly named director, drew a rough sketch of what he wanted, which would turn into the early blueprint of the largest marble structure attempted by the United States. After roughly 500 workers spent two years dismantling the reservoir and preparing the site, the first cornerstone was placed on November 10, 1902. By the end of 1906, exterior work was completed, which then launched five years of interior work, with 75 miles of shelves being added in 1910. On May 23, 1911, the official dedication took place with one million books being put in place in a ceremony presided over by President William Howard Taft and attended by Governor John Alden Dix and Mayor William J. Gaynor. The following morning, the New York Public Library officially opened its doors to the public with roughly 30,000 to 50,000 people filing through the doors.