225 Madison Avenue stands as one of the Unites States’ most precious possessions. Once belonging to one of the most influential figures in US history, it is now an invaluable collection of all media from vast time periods, kept together for public and student use alike.
The Morgan Library and Museum.
Architecture and Design
Covering half a city block, the Morgan Library and Museum is a complex of different architectural tastes and styles spanning from the 1300’s to 2006. In 1902, John Pierpont Morgan (does J.P. Morgan sound familiar?) realized that he would soon run out of space to keep his valuable collection in the best quality possible, so he opted to have a separate building built near his home on 219 Madison Avenue. The initial palazzo-esque design was done by Charles Follen McKim’s firm, McKim, Mead & White, who was instructed to create a “gem” where the collection could be housed.
The building was commissioned to alleviate the logistical and organizational problems the collection was beginning to pose from being stored in Morgan’s modest brownstone basement. Charles Follen McKim remained chief architect, responsible for overseeing the interior and exterior designs of the structure from its inception to his passing in 1909. McKim, Mead & White, renown for its American Renaissance style of architecture, which borrowed hints from the Italian Renaissance, also worked on other various iconic buildings within the city limits.
The Rotunda lunettes are dressed in paintings representing the great literary epochs of the past and their authors. The Antiquity, east, above Morgan Library door, illustrates the Epic Poetry of Antiquity with Homer and Orpheus flanking Calliope, the Muse of Epic Poetry and symbolizing the Iliad and the Odyssey through the depiction of Thetis arming Achilles, with Athena present, and Circe offering the poisonous drink to Odysseus, being warned by Hermes.
Above the Main Entrance, The Middle Ages animates Dante’s Divine Comedy with King Arthur and Dante’s beloved, Beatrice skirting the cardinal altar seen burning the sacred flame. To the left, King Arthur whom behind we witness his court of Tristan, Isolde, Queen Guinevere and Lancelot. On the right, Beatrice, then Dante and Virgil conversing behind her, and further behind them, the furtive first kiss of Guinevere and Lancelot that casts their adulterous love to the Inferno; the comedy’s 9 circles of hell.
The Renaissance, west, leading to Morgan Study, embodies the Muse of Lyric and Amorous Poetry, Erato, in the chief altar fringed by Torquato Tasso, Francesco Petrarch, their loves, and their literary genesis. The left side dedicated to Godfrey of Bouillon, and Siger, his squire; the crusaders Rinaldo and Tancred; Tasso with Leonora d’Este. Opposite, Petrarch and Laura with Hughes de Sade, Laura’s husband shadowing them, and behind him, the Avignon.
But what does all this look like? This is just the Rotunda.
I’ll give you a second to catch your breath and allow your imagination to catch up as well.
Next, step into the library. Here, you’re encased within thirty foot walls that carry exotic bookshelves floor-to-ceiling, and in the majesty of all the literature, two staircases hidden in corners of the room that lead to the balconies above.
The tapestries in this chamber, depict the Seven Deadly Sins by Pieter Coecke van Aelst, whose four accompanying collections are curated in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum.
The lunettes display numerous alternate images of “muses” and their defining attributes beside cultural celebrities of the past. Naming a few, Dante Alighieri, Comedy; Michelangelo Buonarroti, Architecture; Galileo Galilei, Astronomy. Above them, signs of the zodiac and their ruling deities from the Roman mythology. In the sea of creativity, as you take in the vast array of colors and the blinding amount of characters and letters, you literally feel as if you’re learning among the stars. Take in the images and their meanings and you feel age thats not anchored by human experience, A humbling experience indeed.
With all this beauty, we’re still left to wonder about the eclectic vastness of it, soon to realize, we’ve yet to describe the greatest beauty of it, The Study.
Labeled Morgan’s most personal room within the library, the study is where most of the transactions and meetings, both personal and business, took place. Intimately, this room personified Morgan’s vision of beauty and color in various forms. Being perhaps the most salient detail of the room, the antique wooden ceiling was purchased in Italy and was taken apart to be reassembled to fit the study. In the ceiling’s detail, you can note coat of arms copied off renaissance volumes in Morgan’s collection.
The room’s stained-glass panel windows were from memorial windows in former churches and monasteries in Switzerland; walls adorned in red damask; a mantelpiece by Desiderio da Settignano; early Paduan or Venetian fire-dogs for the fireplace; Candelabra holding angels, kneeling, made of polychromed wood; custom furniture by Cowtan & Sons of London. Very little in this study was not in his personal collection. As beautiful as it was concise, the study gave us a true view into Morgan’s obsession with collections and the beauty he saw.
The last room in the original building belonged to the librarian, and housed few, but still noteworthy works of artistic brilliance. Bronze sculptures by Antoine-Louis Barye, Gutzon Borglum, and Giovanni F. Rustici and a copies and paintings of well known works from Bagnaia and Palazzo Ducale of Venice.
In 1928, Morgan’s brownstone, which stood adjacent to his gem, was demolished, and in it’s place, The Annex was erected. The Annex contained an exhibition room and a reading room, to express the duality of showing its collection, but also allowing its guests to learn from it. It connected to the main building by a connecting gallery called “the cloister”. Lead by Architect Benjamin Wistar Morris, the project called for layouts and materials that were similar to the original building so that the greatest sense of unison was achieved. This in essence lead to having H. Siddons Mowbray commissioned again for the ceiling paintings in the Annex.
The inclusion of the Annex doubled the size of the complex, and also switched the main entrance to the Library and Museum from the great doors on 33 East Street, to 29 East 36th street. Over time, from 1959 to 1962, the Annex was altered to allow room for a print room and additional curatorial offices by lowering its ceiling. Additionally, meeting rooms for concerts and lectures were constructed atop the Cloister Gallery that connected the two structures. In 1988, the Morgan acquired the Morgan House, originally purchased by Pierpont for his son, Jack, which included forty-five bedrooms and twelve bathrooms. In 1991, the Garden Court, a glassed encased conservatory, was constructed to connect the Morgan House with the Annex.
In 1999, a new Drawing Study Center was built on the 2nd floor of the Annex to serve scholars, collectors and other connoisseurs. The Drawing Center helped accommodate the ever growing Morgan Collection. The Thaw Center, introduced to the public in 2002 is a world class laboratory for the conservation of works on paper and parchment. It occupied the entire fourth floor of the Morgan House.
The 21st century gave notice to the increase of activity to the museum and lead to encouraging the Morgan’s board of Trustees to build the latest addition to the Library and Museum. Called “The Renzo Piano Expansion and Renovation”, it added close to 75,000 square feet and connected the newest addition - the Morgan House - to the original Morgan Library erected in 1906. The renovation also added four new galleries which allowed the community to participate in programs exclusively for the permanent collection; a state of the art storage facility; a reading room; an educational center with serves as a multipurpose room that houses classes, small lectures, and other educational events; two dining facilities, and lastly a shop.
Since it’s inception, the Morgan Library has more than doubled in its size both structurally and with it's collection. Valued at over 900 million dollars, the collection is almost as costly as the buildings and their renovations all together. But writing about the collective beauty does little justice for it. If you ever find yourself some free time, shoot on over the the Morgan Library & Museum, trust me, you won't regret it.