In 1908, an unnamed correspondent for The Times of London wrote the first public account of the two-year-old library of the financier J. Pierpont Morgan, located next to his home just east of Madison Avenue on 36th Street.
Modeled by the architect Charles Follen McKim on Renaissance buildings such as the Villa Medici in Rome, the library contained Morgan’s legendary collections of rare books and manuscripts, and was built at a cost of $50,000, or more than $1 million today. Describing the library’s lavish interiors and collections, the correspondent wrote, “The Bookman’s Paradise exists and I have seen it.”
This weekend and beyond, the Morgan Library & Museum celebrates the restoration of the landmark McKim Building and unveils an adjacent, new garden—Manhattan’s new green space—and related exhibit. “Today, the bookman’s paradise belongs to all of us,” explains the exhibition.
In an interview this week, Morgan director Colin B. Bailey said the $13 million restoration and garden project stemmed from a 2016 assessment of the library’s masonry, roof, drainage and metalwork. This came 10 years after the completion of Renzo Piano’s design to integrate the museum’s three landmark buildings through steel and glass pavilions. (The other two landmark buildings are the 1924-28 Benjamin Wistar Morris annex and the 19th-century RH Robertson brownstone on Madison Avenue and East 37th Street, where JP Morgan Jr. and his wife lived.) The piano’s design shifted the museum’s original entrance on East 36th Street to Madison Avenue between 36th and 37th Streets.
The museum developed an extensive program to restore the McKim Building’s facade and exterior sculptural decoration; waterproof the foundation and roof; and develop an invisible pigeon control program for birds descended from those who started sitting on the building in 1906. (Pigeons prove to be fearless and highly territorial.)
It has also hired British landscape architect Todd Longstaffe-Gowan — whose commissions include Hampton Court and Kensington and Kew Palaces — to design a 5,000-square-foot garden parallel to the library’s facade. In 1912, Morgan asked the landscape architect Beatrix Jones (later Beatrix Farrand) to design a garden in the space between his home and the library; her design was never implemented. Until the new garden design, the space was occupied by what Longstaffe-Gowan calls a “nondescript” vertical strip of green lawn. “With the garden, we have tried to showcase the exterior of the library and provide visitors with moments to pause and engage with the architecture itself,” Bailey said.
Longstaffe-Gowan’s garden concept—approved by the New York City Landmarks and Preservation Commission in 2018 and inspired by Morgan’s Eurocentric tastes and collections—includes bluestone pathways whose patterns mirror the library floor and outdoor pavement, as well as pebbled sidewalks. by a Sicilian craftsman who uses stones from the shores of the Ionian Sea and volcanic ash from Etna.
Longstaffe-Gowan also installed sculptures from Morgan’s collection, including a Roman sarcophagus, a Roman tomb stele and two Renaissance corbels, in the garden. Most importantly, he created a landscape design with plants deliberately placed low, so as not to distract from McKim’s architecture, including geraniums, anemones, asters, foxglove, and viburnum. In an interview, he said his plant choices and patterns were influenced in part by 15th-century French and Italian manuscripts in Morgan’s collection.
The Morgan hired a lighting designer, Linnaea Tillett, to enhance the nighttime presence of the McKim Building — previously lit only by street lamps. “The landscaping, pathways and lighting are designed to provide an intimate encounter with the building,” Bailey said.
The exterior entrance to the McKim Building has been a major focus of the museum’s conservation team, led by New York-based Integrated Conservation Resources (ICR), which also worked on the 2010 restoration of the interior of Morgan’s library. – decorated with bronze scenes of the life of Christ created in 1900 and inspired by Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Renaissance bronze doors for the Baptistery of Florence – were cleaned and preserved.
Jennifer Schork, a partner at ICR and chief curator of the Morgan project, said the goal of the project was for the McKim building to look “clean, refreshed and repaired, but in no way altered from the original design intent and appearance.” ‘, which she called ‘flawless’.
The library is made of Tennessee Pink marble, sourced from a quarry near Knoxville, which is not real marble but limestone, cut “to perfection” in blocks, according to the museum, separated by lead sheets of only 1/16th. inch thick .
“In the 15 years I’ve been doing this, I’ve never worked on a building designed and constructed so well,” says Schork. “It was certainly intimidating to maintain, refresh and restore its excellence.”
The design and execution of the masonry, she added, “is unmatched in any building in New York City. Mortar was not used; the bricks were placed directly against each other with a very thin layer of lead sheet in between, a similar construction technique as the one used in the Erechtheion, an ancient Greek temple built on the Acropolis to house a wooden statue of Athena.
Anthony Acciavatti, a visiting lecturer in urban studies at the Yale School of Architecture, pointed out that Morgan’s new garden and recently redesigned roof terrace at the nearby Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library “increase the reach and public mission” of both institutions.
Placing the Roman and Renaissance sculptures in the Morgan’s garden would allow a passerby to “look at the objects in the building,” he said.
Catharine Dann Roeber, interim director of academic programs at the Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library, in New Castle County, Delaware, adds that museums and other cultural venues “all struggle with how to make their collections and spaces more accessible to a wider audience”. , said, “de Morgan connects ideas of art, beauty, tranquility and learning it’s known for (inside) in new ways outside.”
The Morgan’s director offered a more sober assessment of the timing of the unveiling, which was set to be completed in the spring of 2021, but was delayed by the pandemic.
“The fact that we’re opening up the outdoor space now seems kind of prescriptive,” Bailey said. “We have found the right time. People like to be in each other’s company, to see beauty.”
Morgan Library & Museum
This weekend until September 10, the exhibition “J. Pierpont Morgan’s Library: Building the Bookman’s Paradise” is open. The garden will open June 18. The library is currently open. 225 Madison Ave, Manhattan, (212) 685-0008; henorgan.org.