Thursday, November 13, 2008

Morgan Library

36th Street just east of Madison Avenue

The Morgan Library began as the private library of financier John Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913), one of the preeminent collectors and cultural benefactors in the United States. As early as 1890 Morgan had begun to assemble a collection of illuminated, literary, and historical manuscripts, early printed books (including a large collection of incunabula, i.e. items printed before the year 1501), and old master drawings and prints. They became so numerous that it was soon evident he needed a place to house and catalogue them together as a collection.

During the last twenty years of his life, J. P. Morgan (financier, railroad, coal, steel and shipping magnate) had been on the most epic art-buying spree in history, spending close to a billion in today’s dollars. Although Morgan collected paintings and other fine art, there was a stiff 20% import tax imposed on paintings and antiquities by the U.S. government; books and manuscripts were exempt from this tax. Much of his fine art and paintings remained housed in his London townhouse and at Dover House, his English country estate, for the purpose of avoiding this tax, which was not rescinded by congress until 1909. Thus Morgan concentrated on rare books and manuscripts for his New York City residence, and his ultimate private collection remains unrivaled today.

Of the forty-eight extant Gutenberg Bibles, the Morgan Library owns three, more than any other institution. Spread among four buildings are the finest collection in America of medieval and Renaissance illuminated manuscripts, Old Master drawings, Coptic manuscripts, Near Eastern cylinder seals, and an important collection of musical manuscripts. It possesses the ninth-century Lindau Gospels (circa 880, made for Charlemagne’s grandson); the 1459 Mainz Psalter; the Hours of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese (1546) illuminated by Giulio Clovio; drawings by Michelangelo, Rubens, and Albrecht Dürer; the autographed manuscript of Mozart’s “Haffner” Symphony; literary manuscripts by Dickens, Balzac, Bob Dylan, and Mark Twain (Pudd’nhead Wilson, which Morgan purchased directly from its author), as well as the only complete manuscript of a Jane Austen novel. The only known manuscript of Milton's Paradise Lost is housed here, and the original manuscript of Charles Dickens's novella A Christmas Carol is displayed every Christmas season.

J.P. Morgan (1837-1913) was born into "old Yankee gentry" in Hartford, Connecticut. In addition to attending schools in the U.S., Morgan was educated in France and Germany; he spoke fluent French and German, and several other European languages, as well. He did the “Grand Tour” several times as a young man, and consistently spent six months of each year in Europe, where he moved in aristocratic circles. It was nothing for him to travel from Paris to New York, then hop on his own train to Washington to meet with the president of the United States.

Morgan served as president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1904 until his death in 1913, at which time 7,000 rare and valuable items were bequeathed to the Metropolitan. 4,100 of them were displayed by the Met from 1914-1916 in the first ever “block-buster” exhibit by a U.S. museum. It is a little-known fact that many of the finest holdings displayed in the city's Frick Collection were purchased from the Morgan estate. Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s “Progress of Love”paintings were purchased by Frick in 1915 for $1.25 million; today these paintings rank among the most prized possessions of the Frick Collection.

Mr. Morgan's library, as it was known in his lifetime, was built between 1902 and 1906, adjacent to his New York residence at Madison Avenue and 36th Street in today's Murray Hill neighborhood (this house was the first electrically lit private residence in New York; Morgan was, after all, the founder of General Electric). Three brownstone mansions, all constructed in the 1850s, occupied the entire east side of the block along Madison Avenue from 36th to 37th streets. All of them were to become the property of Pierpont Morgan. He bought and occupied the one at the corner of 36th Street. Because Morgan was born into a family of fabulous wealth and prestige, he did not find it necessary to participate in the ego-assuaging practice of commissioning over-the-top private mansions, as was the habit of the so-called “robber barons,” the self-made industrialists of the age. Morgan was content to occupy a recycled house.

To the immediate north of Morgan’s home stood a brownstone built for industrialist William Earl Dodge, which Morgan purchased and demolished to make room for a garden designed by Beatrix Farrand, one of America’s leading landscape gardeners (and niece of Edith Wharton). Among the extant masterpieces of Ms. Farrand are the gardens of the Dumbarton Oaks estate in Washington, DC.

The brownstone on the corner of Madison Avenue and 37th Street was built for Isaac N. Phelps, whose grandson became one of the city’s prominent architects. In 1903 Pierpont Morgan purchased the Phelps mansion for his son Jack, who lived there until his death in 1943 (Jack founded the Murray Hill Association in 1914). Although it subsequently served as the headquarters of the Lutheran Church in America, this brownstone mansion came "back into the fold" of the Morgan complex in 1988. The house was used in filming the 1981 movie "Ragtime." Today the Thaw Conservation Center is situated on the top floor of the old Jack Morgan house. It’s an atelier where five to ten professionals and students perform the conservation work for all the Morgan Library’s works on paper. The ground floor of this building houses the museum shop, in the mansion's former ballroom, and a restaurant, located in the former dining room, both with their splendid architectural details intact.

Designed by Charles McKim of the architectural firm McKim, Mead & White, Mr. Morgan's library was intended as something more than a repository of rare materials. Majestic in appearance yet intimate in scale, the structure was to reflect the nature and stature of its holdings. The result was an Italian Renaissance style palazzo with three magnificent rooms epitomizing America's Age of Elegance. Based on a 16th century Italian structure, its facade of Tennessee marble centers on an entrance in the form of a Palladian arch. The “dry masonry” of the McKim building, in which stone blocks were laid without mortar, in the manner of the ancient Greeks, bears example of its extraordinary refinement. To either side are lions carved by Edward Clark Potter and roundels and panels by Andrew O'Connor and Adolph Weinman. The refined simplicity of the exterior belies the richness of the interior. The entire structure is a virtual temple to books and art.

The Rotunda, an elaborate, colorful marble entrance hall, is crowned by a domed ceiling adorned with murals and plaster work by H. Siddons Mowbray. Mosaic panels and columns of lapis lazuli rise up from the marble floor, with its central porphyry disc, which owes its design to that of the Villa Pia in the Vatican gardens.

The East Library, pictured below (click photo to see details), is called one of the great achievements of American interior decoration. It is dominated by triple tiers of bookcases and ornamented with lunettes by Mowbry. This room houses 15,000 volumes, mostly in French, Italian and German. Above the fireplace is a sixteenth-century Brussels tapestry. Ceiling paintings feature portraits of great men of the past alternating with female muses and signs of the zodiac. A Gutenberg Bible c. 1455 (one of three in the collection), is always displayed on a table top in this room.

Completed three years before McKim's death, this library building is considered by many to be his masterpiece. In 1924, eleven years after Pierpont Morgan's death, his son, J. P. Morgan, Jr., realized that the library had become too important to remain in private hands. In what constituted one of the most momentous cultural gifts in U.S. history, he fulfilled his father's dream of making the library available to all by transforming it into a public institution. Over the years – through purchases and generous gifts – The Morgan Library & Museum has continued to acquire rare materials as well as important music manuscripts, early children's books, Americana, and materials from the twentieth century.

Without losing its domestic feeling, the Morgan expanded its physical space. In 1928, the Annex building (lower right corner in the photo above), designed by Benjamin Wistar Morris, was erected on the corner of Madison Avenue and 36th Street, where Pierpont Morgan's private residence was demolished to make room for it. The Annex connected to the original McKim library by means of a gallery. The 1991 garden court was constructed as a means to unite the various elements of the Morgan campus. The brownstone mansion in the lower left of the photo is the Jack Morgan residence at the corner of Madison Avenue and 37th Street.

Up close and personal with a Gutenberg Bible.

The largest expansion in the Morgan's Library's history, adding 75,000 square feet to the campus, was completed in 2006 after approval from the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Designed by celebrated architect Renzo Piano, the project increased exhibition space by more than fifty percent and added numerous visitor amenities, including a new 250-seat performance hall/screening room, a main entrance on Madison Avenue, a new café and a new restaurant, a shop, a new reading room, and collections storage. Piano's design integrates the Morgan's three historical buildings with three new steel-and-glass pavilions. While there was no relation between the original J.P. Morgan brownstone mansion and the materials or design of his Italianate library next door, the 1928 library annex building blended in with and complimented the original library. Although the new Renzo Piano addition provides a soaring light-filled central court that connects the older buildings and serves as a gathering place for visitors, the Madison Avenue facade of Piano's structure is jarringly inappropriate and reminiscent of bad 1960s architecture; it has been dubbed the "tissue box" by its many critics. The interior is more successful, as it amounts to little more than a glass pavilion that connects the other structures; much of the additional space was gained from underground excavation.

The Pierpont Morgan Library and Annex was designated as a landmark by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1966. The interior was designated separately in 1982. National Register #66000544 (1966).

The Study, pictured above, is the most sumptuous, yet personal, of the rooms and the one that best reflects the personal tastes of its original occupant. It was here that Morgan met with art dealers, scholars, business colleagues, and friends. He loved to play solitaire and smoke Cuban cigars in this room (he smoked dozens a day), when time could be spared from saving the nation's banks. Pierpont Morgan helped end the “Panic of 1907" by rallying fellow bankers to supply liquidity to shore up the endangered national banking system. The crisis was resolved in this room after he locked the doors and refused to let the bankers leave until they agreed to a rescue plan.

With few exceptions, all the paintings, sculpture, and decorative objects in the Study where here in Pierpont Morgan's day. There is a painting of his son Jack, wearing the robes of Oxford University, from which he received an honorary degree after his father made a major purchase for the University. The paintings are primarily by Italian and Northern Renaissance masters; the art objects range in date from the third millennium B.C. to the nineteenth century, and give some indication of the original scope and diversity of Morgan's vast holdings.

Now open to the public for the first time, the Librarian's Office (above) is located at the north end of the Rotunda. This is the smallest of the McKim rooms and was the office of Belle da Costa Greene, Morgan's personal librarian, a leading figure in the international art world and the first director of the Morgan. This room continued to be used as a librarian's office well into the late 1980s. The librarian bore the mostly made-up name of Belle da Costa Greene.

Belle Greener, born in Alexandria, VA, where she grew up, was an African-American woman whose skin was light enough to allow her to pass herself off as Portuguese. An exotic beauty, a fashionable dresser, and a fiercely intelligent and strong-willed woman, Belle was a librarian at Princeton University and had an interest in illuminated manuscripts when Morgan hired her to manage his library and help build his collection. Belle’s father, Richard Greener, was Harvard’s first black graduate and a distinguished attorney and dean of Howard Law School in Washington, DC. Belle was introduced to Pierpont Morgan by his nephew Junius Morgan, himself an assistant librarian of Princeton.

It was only after her father took a consular position abroad and Belle’s parents dissolved their marriage that Belle and her mother, who lived together in New York City, changed their surname from Greener to Greene and began to pass themselves off as whites of Portuguese descent. It is said that Belle “moved her birth date around like a potted plant.” As agent, confidante, and adviser to Morgan, Belle became possibly the most powerful woman in New York City’s cultural establishment. With her outstanding knowledge, judgment and Morgan’s money, she was able to shape the markets in art and books. See photo below (circa 1911).

She traveled frequently to Europe, taking her thoroughbred horse with her to ride in London's Hyde Park. Described as smart, outspoken, and beautiful, she wore couturier gowns, feathered hats, and jewels to work. "Just because I'm a librarian, doesn't mean I have to dress like one," she said. Mr. Morgan left Belle a substantial amount in his will. She never married, retired in 1948, and died in New York City at the age of 66.

In his 20s at the time of the US Civil War, Morgan avoided military service by paying $300 for a substitute, a common practice among the wealthy at the time.

J. P. Morgan was a pioneer in industrial consolidation (he formed U.S. Steel and General Electric by purchasing and then consolidating competitors). A year before his death, Morgan, owner of the White Star Line, which built the Titanic, escaped a watery death by a quirk of fate. Morgan canceled passage on the Titanic mainly because when word got out that the financier would be on the maiden voyage of his great new liner, White Star was besieged by requests from an array of con men and Wall Street speculators, all wanting to book staterooms on the Titanic in the hope of cornering him at sea, where he had no escape, to badger him into funding their sure-to-make-millions schemes. He canceled his own booking, announcing he had no plans to return to the States until summer. At the same time he gave orders that his storied art collection, which was being shipped to New York that year, not be placed aboard. Morgan died in 1913 in Rome, Italy, at the age of 75.

Morgan's uncle, James Lord Pierpont, was a notable composer and church music director in his day. Pierpont was famous for composing the original "Jingle Bells" in the 1850s; it was originally titled “One Horse Open Sleigh.”

Morgan was a major collector of gemstones. In 1911 G. F. Kunz, chief gemologist for Tiffany & Co., named a newly found gem "morganite," after his biggest customer. Morganite was first discovered on an island off the coast of Madagascar in 1910.

J. P. Morgan Library/Museum/Concert Hall
225 Madison Ave at 36th St., 212.685.0008

Musical manuscripts, 3 Gutenberg Bibles, 2 restaurants;
10:30a-5:00p Tue-Thu., -6:00p Sat/Sun; -9:00Fri; closed Mondays.

$12 Adults; $8 Seniors 65 and over; $8 Students (with current ID)
Admission is free on Fridays from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Admission to the McKim rooms is free Tuesdays 3-5 p.m.; Fridays 7-9 p.m.; Sundays 4-6 p.m.

Admission is not required to visit the Morgan Shop and Morgan Dining Room.

Note: Much of the content of this earlier post was expanded and updated from information found in the January-February 2010 issue of HUMANITIES, a publication of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Volume 31, Number 1. The author of the feature article is Francis Morrone, a writer and historian who has written extensively on nineteenth- and twentieth-century culture.

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