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The Morgan Library & Museum

Although I have lived directly behind the Morgan Library for more than 5 years, I had not fully rediscovered the library and museum until recently at the Dan Flavin Drawing show. Last week after seeing the incredible drawings and a few select light sculptures by Dan Flavin I decided to revisit the library and study the details of this McKim, Mead and White architectural masterpiece. Pierpont Morgan, a great financier of the turn-of-the-century assembled a collection of artistic objects, rare books and manuscripts beginning in 1890 and within a decade his collections grew so large he needed a place to house the works.

The grandest and largest room in the building is the library with ceilings soaring to thirty feet and lined with triple tier bookcases of bronze and inlaid Circassian walnut. Two concealed staircases in the corners of the room provide access to the balconies and a pair of stained glass casement windows illuminate the room from the north.

Detail of Circassian walnut and bronze bookcase

The original library on 36th Street between Madison and Park Avenues was completed in 1906 by architect Charles McKim and was designed as a Renaissance-style palazzo with very elegant details and considered by many to be his masterpiece. Adjacent to Morgan’s home on the corner of 36th Street and Madison, the library was constructed of Tennessee pink marble. The construction of the building was so precise that the blocks of stone were set with virtually no mortar. A pair of lionesses flank the recessed portico featuring double ionic columns and a bronze door.

Model of the Morgan Library by McKim, Mead & White

Above the entry artist Andrew O’Connor (1874-1941) created the sculpted lunette with two putti supporting the logo of Aldus Manutius, the great Renaissance scholar and the dedicatory panel on the cornice. A student of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Adolph Weinman (1870-1952) sculpted the reliefs on the facade and the Assyrian lionesses were the work of Edward Clark Potter (1857-1923). Potter later created the pair of lions that guard the entry to the New York Public Library.

Edward Clark Potter’s Lioness guards the old entrance to the library

The mantelpiece on the east wall of the Library is carved of Istrian marble in the Renaissance style. Above is a tapestry, The Triumph of Avarice, with a moralizing Latin inscription that translates, “As Tantalus is ever thirsty in the midst of water, so is the miser always desirous of riches.” The tapestry belongs to a series depicting the Seven Deadly Sins, designed by Pieter Coecke van Aelst (1502–50), the father-in-law of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. It was produced in Brussels in 1545 by the workshop of Willem de Pannemaker (active 1535–78). Four other tapestries from the series are in the Spanish royal collections, and a complete series of seven is in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum.

Istrian marble mantelpiece and “Triumph of Avarice” tapestry
Renaissance style Istrian marble mantelpiece in the Library
Morgan Library Rotunda
View into the library from the rotunda
Librarian’s Office
Detail of bronze handrail in the Librarian’s Office

The Morgan Annex was built in place of the original Morgan home at the corner of 36th and Madison west of the McKim, Mead and White library in 1928. Project architect Benjamin Wistar Morris’ mission was to design a building that would double the size of the original library and integrate architecturally with the library. The main entry was also moved to 29 East 36th Street once the addition was completed.

Morgan Campus Annex built in 1928
New entry for Morgan Campus
Ceiling of the new entry

The Morgan house at the corner of 37th and Madison was acquired in 1988 as a residence for Morgan’s son Jack and his family. It was the only surviving brownstone from the original Morgan complex and is a New York City landmark.

Morgan brownstone
Morgan brownstone music room now serves as the museum bookstore

In 1991 the Renzo Piano garden court conservatory opened connecting all three structures centrally.

Renzo Piano present day entry connecting the Morgan brownstone and annex
Renzo Piano conservatory and stairs leading to Morgan Library

The Dan Flavin drawing show runs through July 1st at the Morgan Library.

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