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The Museum of Morgan

At the recently expanded Morgan Library, visitors encounter architectural treasures and a peerless collection of manuscripts and art.

By Francis Morrone | HUMANITIES, January/February 2010 | Volume 31, Number 1

In March 1913, J. P. Morgan lay dying in his suite in Rome’s Grand Hotel, which "looked like a besieged fortress," according to Jean Strouse’s Morgan: American Financier. "Waves of art dealers and amateurs with bundles of things to sell descended on the hotel ‘from early morning to late at night and are repulsed with the regularity of surf on the beach,’" as London’s Daily Mail reported. For twenty years Morgan had been on the most epic art-buying spree in history, spending close to a billion in today’s dollars. Anyone with something to sell wanted a last crack at the man; dealers around the world feared the market’s steep slump when Morgan breathed his last.

John Pierpont Morgan was born in 1837 in Hartford, Connecticut. Unlike the so-called "robber barons" who defined America’s enterprise culture in the second half of the nineteenth century, and who tended to be self-made men, Morgan was to the manner born. His father, Junius Spencer Morgan, was a distinguished international banker, a partner in the London firm of George Peabody & Co. (later to be called J. S. Morgan & Co.). Bankers such as Peabody and the elder Morgan arranged European financing for America’s industrialization and westward expansion.

Following studies at Germany’s University of Göttingen, the younger Morgan—"J. P.," as distinct from the paternal "J. S."—became the Peabody firm’s New York representative. In 1895, when he was fifty-eight and his father had been dead for five years, he formed J. P. Morgan & Co., the "House of Morgan." His industrial reorganizations and corporate mergers—the most magnificent of which was his creation of U.S. Steel, the world’s first billion-dollar corporation—are the stuff of financial legend. He, perhaps more than anyone else, forged the modern American corporate economy.

But as Louis Auchincloss wrote of Morgan, "Today he is remembered as much for being a collector as a banker." Walk through the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and you can’t help noticing his name on one wall label after another and marveling at how many of that museum’s greatest treasures were bequeathed to it by its onetime president. Few visitors to New York’s equally glorious Frick Collection are aware that Henry Clay Frick purchased some of his finest objects from Morgan’s estate. If that were all there was to Morgan’s legacy as a collector, it would be enough to place him among the top two or three in American history. But there is more.

The Morgan Library & Museum, now housed in a complex of four major buildings in New York’s Murray Hill neighborhood, possesses a matchless collection of rare books, manuscripts, drawings, and other works on paper. Here are Old Master drawings, Coptic manuscripts, Near Eastern cylinder seals, musical manuscripts, and the finest collection in America of medieval and Renaissance illuminated manuscripts. The Morgan possesses the ninth-century Lindau Gospels; the 1459 Mainz Psalter; the Hours of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese (1546) illuminated by Giulio Clovio; drawings by Michelangelo, Rubens, and 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); and, in case one wasn’t enough, three (count ‘em) Gutenberg Bibles, bringing New York’s world-leading total to four out of the forty-eight extant. To top it off, the Morgan has completed a breathtaking expansion and reinvented itself to make more pleasingly accessible to the public a collection of such astounding rarity and seriousness that it can scarcely support the "blockbuster" approach of other museums.

The story of the Morgan Library & Museum’s complex of buildings begins in 1881 with J. P. Morgan’s purchase of a brownstone mansion on the northeast corner of Madison Avenue and 36th Street. It’s a measure of how Morgan’s predilections differed from those of many other rich New Yorkers of his time that he chose not to build a new mansion but settled into one that was "pre-owned." (Morgan was also not, by his own inclination, a member of Mrs. Astor’s "400.") The house was one of three that had been built at the same time in the 1850s, which together occupied the entire block front of the east side of Madison Avenue between 36th and 37th streets.

About twenty years after moving into his brownstone, Morgan commissioned the architectural firm McKim, Mead & White to design an addition to the rear, or east, of the town house. This would be Morgan’s library and study, a place to play solitaire, save the nation’s banks (sometimes while playing solitaire), and deposit some small portion of his growing collection.

By 1900, McKim, Mead & White was New York’s largest architectural firm, and remains the most famous in the city’s history. Morgan ranks high among the firm’s patrons. Stanford White in the late 1880s designed the second Madison Square Garden (where the architect met his end in 1906), commissioned by the National Horse Show Association, of which Morgan was president. Morgan was the Metropolitan Club founder who hired White to design the palatial clubhouse on Fifth Avenue at 60th Street. And Morgan, as president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1904 until his death in 1913, commissioned McKim, Mead & White to design two large wings fronting on Fifth Avenue.

The 36th Street library commission went to the firm’s Charles Follen McKim, who designed an icily elegant building in the High Renaissance manner of Baldassare Peruzzi or Giacomo da Vignola. It’s a compact structure containing two spectacularly lofty rooms on either side of a central hall, as well as a third, lesser room to the north of the hall. The room on the west served Morgan as his study and office, a baronial preserve of soaring dimensions and exquisite detail; to the east was the library itself, high-ceilinged with a stained-glass skylight and wonderful catwalks providing access to shelves upon shelves of rare books and manuscripts. The third room served as the office of Morgan’s librarian.

The librarian bore the mostly made-up name of Belle da Costa Greene. Belle Greener was an African-American woman whose skin was light enough to allow her to pass herself off as Portuguese (hence the made-up name). 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. According to Heidi Ardizzone’s biography of Greene, An Illuminated Life: Belle da Costa Greene’s Journey from Prejudice to Privilege, Belle’s father, Richard Greener, enjoyed a measure of fame as Harvard College’s first black graduate. It was only after he took a consular position abroad and he and Belle’s mother 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 for white. (Belle also, writes Strouse, "moved her birth date around like a potted plant.") As agent, confidante, and adviser to Morgan, Belle, says Ardizzone, became possibly the most powerful woman in New York City’s cultural establishment, able, with her outstanding judgment and Morgan’s money, to shape the markets in art and books.

To the immediate north of Morgan’s house stood a brownstone mansion built for the industrialist William Earl Dodge. The brownstone on the southeast corner of Madison Avenue and 37th Street was built for Isaac N. Phelps. It was passed on to his daughter, Helen, and son-in-law, Anson Phelps Stokes. Anson and Helen’s son, Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes, became one of the city’s prominent architects as well as the author of the six-volume Iconography of Manhattan Island (1915–28), the most monumental feat of scholarship ever devoted to the history of New York City, and a work unlikely ever to be surpassed. The house’s exterior bears exquisite wrought ironwork—among the finest one will see from that period—dating from the Stokeses’ occupancy. In 1903, J. P. Morgan purchased and demolished the Dodge house. He hired Beatrix Farrand, one of America’s leading landscape gardeners (and the niece of Edith Wharton) to design a garden for the site. In 1904, Morgan bought the Phelps-Stokes house and gave it to his son, J. P. Morgan Jr., familiarly known as Jack. Jack took possession of the house in 1905, moved in the next year, and stayed there until his death in 1943. Upon acquiring the house, Jack hired the firm of Joseph Duveen, art dealers and decorators, to oversee an interior remodeling that produced the gorgeous rooms the public sees today.

The senior Morgan died in 1913, after which Jack sold much of his father’s art collection. A major beneficiary of the sales was New York’s Frick Collection. Between 1914 and 1916, the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibited some 4,100 objects from Morgan’s collection. Colin B. Bailey, the chief curator of the Frick Collection, calls that exhibition "the first American ‘blockbuster.’" Among the works displayed were Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s "Progress of Love" paintings. These eighteenth-century masterpieces, purchased by Morgan in 1898, had hung in the dining room of his town house in London’s South Kensington. (Most of Morgan’s collection stayed in London until 1909 when America rescinded the 20 percent tariff it had imposed in 1897 on imported artworks.) At the Metropolitan exhibition, the Fragonards hung in a copy of the London dining room. In 1915, the English dealer Joseph Duveen, who worked for both Jack Morgan and Henry Clay Frick, brokered the sale of the Fragonards to Frick for $1.25 million. Today the paintings rank as one of the most prized possessions of the Frick Collection.

In addition to dispersing much of his father’s collection, Jack also made from its core works on paper a library and museum of their own, with Belle da Costa Greene as director. To that end Jack decided to demolish his father’s house, but to retain McKim’s library. On the site of his father’s house, Jack commissioned the architect Benjamin Wistar Morris to design the building, completed in 1928, that is there now. A subdued structure, it was designed not to compete in any way with the majesty of McKim’s library. For many years the Morgan Library comprised just the two buildings on 36th Street.

Jack Morgan was born in 1867 and graduated from Harvard College in 1889. In 1898 he moved to London to help run J. S. Morgan & Co., returning to New York in 1906. Following his father’s death, Jack took the helm of J. P. Morgan & Co. Jack was shy—some say he inspired Edith Wharton’s impossibly dull Percy Gryce in The House of Mirth—but he commanded the loyalty of the Morgan partners. Ron Chernow, in his book The House of Morgan, quotes one of those partners, George Whitney, as saying that Jack "wasn’t a buccaneer like his father, but he was a hell of a guy." An intense Anglophile since his years in London, Jack fanatically supported Britain at the outbreak of the First World War, putting his bank, sometimes controversially, at the service of British and French war aims. In 1915, Jack was the victim of an assassination attempt when a self-proclaimed pacifist and former instructor in German at Harvard named Erich Muenter broke into Jack’s Long Island home. Jack, his wife, and their British butler physically subdued Muenter—Chernow suggests the scene must have looked like something in a Hollywood movie, especially when the butler knocked Muenter unconscious with a chunk of coal. In the course of the fracas, Jack took two bullets to the groin, but recovered without complication. "It was," Chernow quotes Jack, "a most disagreeable experience, though it is not as painful as I imagined it would be to be shot as I was"—a statement that in tone and content seems to sum up Jack’s combination of diffidence, awkwardness, and likability.

In the aftermath of the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, which forbade the same firm from engaging in both commercial and investment banking, Jack oversaw a massive restructuring of the House of Morgan. The reorganization led to J. P. Morgan & Co. becoming a commercial bank, and to the creation of a separate investment banking firm, Morgan Stanley. Though these separate firms prospered, the new legislation effectively destroyed the House of Morgan, which had bestrode Wall Street like a colossus.

In 1944, the Lutheran Church in America purchased the Jack Morgan house, and maintained its headquarters there until 1988. The church successfully sued to block the house’s designation as a landmark. But not only did the church never demolish the house, it was, says Brian Regan, the Morgan’s deputy director, an excellent steward of the house’s beautiful interiors. In 1988 the Morgan Library purchased the house—bringing it, so to speak, back into the family.

The Morgan then undertook a significant expansion. In order to connect the house with the 1928 building, the architects Voorsanger & Associates created a large glass atrium, completed in 1991, on the site of the garden. And in 2001, the Morgan commissioned architect Samuel Anderson to design the Thaw Conservation Center, situated on the top floor of the old Jack Morgan house. It’s a lovely atelier where five to ten professionals and students perform the conservation work for all the Morgan’s works on paper.

But this expansion was not enough. The Morgan needed more space for collection storage, research facilities, galleries, and public programs, and in 2001 hired the Renzo Piano Building Workshop to develop a master plan. At the same time, New York’s Beyer Blinder Belle devised a plan for the restoration of the Morgan’s three designated landmark buildings (the McKim library, the 1928 building, and the Jack Morgan house).

Between 2003 and 2006, the Morgan closed as the expansion project proceeded. When it reopened, Piano’s central pavilion on Madison Avenue had replaced the 1991 atrium. Many New Yorkers had found the older atrium visually jarring, but, as it had never served as the Morgan’s entrance, it never appreciably altered the experience of visiting the museum. Piano’s new glass-and-steel pavilion, on the other hand, serves as the entrance and as the pivot of the whole complex. Initial assessments of the Piano pavilion were mixed. The New York Times’s Nicolai Ouroussoff suggested that the Piano addition was architecturally superior to the McKim building, which he called a "reliquary for a dying culture." House & Garden’s Martin Filler, however, felt the Piano expansion struck a dissonant note: "the beloved, indispensable Morgan might have done better hiring a first-rate classical revivalist."

But many dissenters have muted their negative assessments as it has become apparent that, in fact, the whole complex has been gracefully woven together and that Renzo Piano’s lofty glass-and-steel cube possesses, as all good architecture does, tolerances for additions and emendations: As various display cases and wall banners have been added to the space, moderating its original austerity, it has acquired a warmer, more lived-in character, while losing none of its formal elegance.

Deputy director Regan, who feels the Piano atrium is an "emotionally elevating place to be," likes to point out how a north wall of the McKim building forms part of the wall in the southeastern part of the atrium. The "dry masonry" of the McKim building, in which stone blocks were laid without mortar, in the manner of the ancient Greeks, bears an extraordinary refinement. For Regan, the ideal was to find a Modernist equivalent to that refinement, and Piano’s work, Regan says, "is as refined as we could hope it would be."

But the Madison Avenue pavilion is only part of what Piano wrought. Half the expansion is underground, going down to sixty feet and including the elegant 260-seat Gilder Lehrman Hall as well as the vaults where the collection is stored. Back upstairs, Piano’s Sherman Fairchild Reading Room provides up to ten qualified scholars at a time with access to the Morgan’s collection in a crisply modern space with shiny dark wood and an elaborate skylight filtered to provide optimal illumination for the examination of works on paper.

In Jack Morgan’s former house, the parlor-floor museum shop occupies a former ballroom (a chapel during the Lutheran occupancy) with elaborate, though liltingly executed, moldings representing the best of early twentieth-century interior design in America. The Morgan’s restaurant, situated between the shop and the Piano atrium, occupies the old house’s former dining room and features a marvelous marble mantelpiece festooned with cherub reliefs.

Currently, the Morgan’s exhibitions brilliantly showcase the library’s holdings. "A Woman’s Wit: Jane Austen’s Life and Legacy" runs through March 14, 2010, in the upstairs Engelhard Gallery. The exhibition draws from the Morgan’s collection to present Austen’s letters and manuscripts with supporting materials, including etchings by the incomparable James Gillray.

In the Morgan Stanley Gallery East, in the 1928 building, we find "William Blake’s World: ‘A New Heaven Is Begun,’" through January 3, 2010. This exhibition draws from the Morgan’s outstanding collection of Blake material to present the library’s first show on him in two decades, and features prints, illuminated books of poetry, and many rarely seen (and must-see) watercolors by the English poet and artist.

Across the 1928 building’s central hall, with its magnificent ironwork ceiling by the great Philadelphian Samuel Yellin, is "Rococo and Revolution: Eighteenth-Century French Drawings." This again draws exclusively from the Morgan’s own holdings and provides a rare feast of images by Fragonard, Watteau, Boucher, David, Prud’hon, and other French masters from that nation’s golden age of draftsmanship.

"Celebrating Puccini" occupies the small Clare Eddy Thaw Gallery that Piano discreetly inserted between the 1928 building and the McKim library—a "hyphen," Brian Regan calls it. Here we find materials—such as part of the score for La Bohème with a self-caricature signed and dated ("12.12.90cinque") by the Italian composer Giacomo Puccini—highlighting the Morgan’s incomparable collection of musical materials.

This lineup of shows provides a perfect introduction to the Morgan Library & Museum, where, because of the fragility of so many of the holdings, little of the collection is permanently on exhibit. Each visit to the Morgan yields the permanent delights of the beautiful architecture—the moldings in the Jack Morgan house, the Modernist elegance of Renzo Piano, the stupendous splendor of the McKim library, the Yellin ironwork of the 1928 building—together with ever-changing, ever-delighting, and ever-enlightening works drawn from a unique collection without peer in the Western Hemisphere.

About the Author

Francis Morrone is a writer and historian who has written extensively on nineteenth- and twentieth-century culture

Funding Information

From 2004 to 2008 the Morgan Library received an NEH challenge grant of $750,000 to support enhanced humanities programming at the museum.