In 1908, an unnamed Times of London correspondent wrote the first public account of financier J. Pierpont Morgan’s two-year-old library adjacent to his home east of Madison Avenue at 36th Street.
Designed by architect Charles Follen McKim after Renaissance buildings such as Rome’s Villa Medici, the library contained Morgan’s famous collections of rare books and manuscripts and was built at a cost of US$50,000, or over US$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 next, the Morgan Library & Museum is celebrating the restoration of the iconic McKim building and unveiling an adjacent new garden—Manhattan’s new green space—and accompanying exhibit. “Today, the ‘bookmaker’s paradise’ belongs to all of us,” says the exhibition.
In an interview this week, Morgan director Colin B. Bailey said the $13 million restoration and garden project grew out of a 2016 evaluation of the library’s masonry, roof, drainage and metalwork . This comes 10 years after the completion of Renzo Piano’s design to integrate the museum’s three distinctive buildings through steel and glass pavilions. (The other two prominent buildings are the 1924-28 Benjamin Wistar Morris addition and the 19th-century brownstone by RH Robertson at Madison Avenue and East 37th Street, where JP Morgan Jr. and his wife lived.) Piano’s design moved the museum’s original entrance on East 36th Street to Madison Avenue between 36th and 37th Streets.
The museum developed an elaborate program to restore the facade and sculptural exterior of the McKim Building. make the foundation and roof waterproof; and develop an invisible pigeon control program for birds descended from those that began perching on the building in 1906. (Pigeons prove fearless and very territorial.)
It also hired British landscape architect Todd Longstaffe-Gowan – whose commissions included Hampton Court, Kensington and Kew Palace – to design a 5,000-square-foot garden parallel to the library’s facade. In 1912, Morgan asked landscape architect Beatrix Jones (later Beatrix Farrand) to design a garden between his home and the library; Her design was never carried out. Until the new garden design, the space was occupied by what Longstaffe-Gowan calls an ‘indistinguishable’ vertical strip of green lawn. “With the garden, we wanted to showcase the library’s exterior and provide moments for visitors to stop and engage with the architecture itself,” said Bailey.
Longstaffe-Gowan’s garden concept—approved by the New York City Landmarks and Preservation Commission in 2018 and inspired by Morgan’s Eurocentric taste and collections—includes bluestone pathways, the pattern of which echoes the library’s floor and exterior paving, and pebble paving designed by a Sicilian Artisans using stones from the shores of the Ionian Sea and volcanic ash from Mount Etna.
Longstaffe-Gowan also installed sculptures from Morgan’s collection in the garden, including a Roman sarcophagus, a Roman funerary stele and two Renaissance corbels. Most importantly, he created a landscape design with plants intentionally low so as not to distract from McKim’s architecture, including geraniums, anemones, asters, foxgloves, and viburnum. In an interview, he said his plant selection 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 McKim Building’s nocturnal presence, previously lit only by streetlights. “The landscaping, pathways, and lighting are designed to provide an intimate encounter with the building,” said Bailey.
The McKim Building’s exterior entrance was a key focus of the museum’s conservation team, led by New York-based Integrated Conservation Resources (ICR), which also worked on the restoration of the interior of Morgan’s library in 2010. The doors – adorned with bronze scenes from the life of Christ created in 1900 and inspired by Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Renaissance bronze doors for the Florence Baptistery – have been cleaned and conserved.
Jennifer Schork, a partner at ICR and principal restorer on the Morgan project, said the goal of the project is for the McKim building to “appear clean, refreshed and repaired, but not altered in any way from the original design intent and appearance.” . what she called “impeccable”.
The library is made of Tennessee Pink marble from a quarry near Knoxville, which is not true marble but limestone, cut “to perfection” according to the museum into blocks separated by plates of lead only 1/16 inch thick are .
“In my 15 years of service, I have never worked on a building that was so well designed and built,” said Schork. “Maintaining, refreshing and restoring its excellence has certainly been intimidating.”
The design and execution of the masonry, she added, “is unparalleled in any building in New York City. Mortar was not used; The stones were set directly against each other with a very thin layer of sheet lead,” a construction technique similar to that used in the Erechtheum, an ancient Greek temple built on the Acropolis to house a wooden statue of Athena.
Anthony Acciavatti, visiting assistant professor of urban studies at the Yale School of Architecture, pointed out that the Morgan’s new garden, as well as the recently redesigned rooftop of the nearby Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library, “expands the outreach and public mission” of both institutions .
The placement of the Roman and Renaissance sculptures in Morgan’s garden might entice a passer-by 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, added that museums and other cultural sites “are all looking at how to make their collections and spaces more accessible to a wider audience.” . , said, “The Morgan blends ideas about art, beauty, recreation and learning that it’s known for (on the inside) in new ways on the outside.”
Morgan’s director offered a more sober assessment of the timing of the unveiling, which was due to be completed in spring 2021 but has been delayed by the pandemic.
“The fact that we’re opening up the outside area now seems kind of mandated,” Bailey said. “We found the right moment. People are eager 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 opens on June 18th. The library is currently open. 225 Madison Avenue, Manhattan, (212) 685-0008; themorgan.org.