Sunday, November 7, 2010

J.P. Morgan's Library

As you have surely read by now, The Morgan Library and Museum recently opened their refurbished building, commissioned by J.P. Morgan (1837-1917) and designed by McKim, Mead and White architects in 1906. This is the first major restoration to the interior since that time and was done in a record four and one half months. Yet, if you do not go regularly to the Morgan you would hardly realize what all the fuss is about. It is a brilliant job, a perfect restoration that only brings out the original grandeur and beauty of the space without trying to improve upon it!

You don’t think about the use of non-reflective glass but the glass on the vitrines has been swapped out so that you now can see the objects and not your reflection in the vitrines. What probably makes the most obvious difference is the new lighting which shows off, for instance, the wonderful painting of the great men of the arts on the library ceiling and the mosaic work in the ceiling of the rotunda. If you think about it, these were probably never before as visible, since it was still early days for electric light when the building was originally put up.

Over the years other buildings have been added to the complex. The most recent of these additions is an award winning new entrance on Madison Avenue and Atrium by Renzo Piano which brings all the Morgan buildings together. Personally, however, I find it an eyesore, not in keeping with Morgan’s aesthetic, but then I am a dinosaur when it comes to tradition and do not embrace change for its own sake. This entrance, however, is in such stark contrast to the original space that when one goes up a short flight of steps on the right side at the back of the Atrium and through the glass door one feels as if one has walked through Alice’s looking glass into another world. I liked that, an oasis from 21st century New York.

The McKim building is relatively small including only three rooms connected by a rotunda. The library itself, study cum office and the annex to the library where the librarian was situated. When you enter into the rotunda that connects all three spaces, there is now installed a rotating exhibition of Americana from the Morgan’s collections. At the moment the cases include one of the 26 original copies of the Declaration of Independence, notes that Lincoln wrote before the Lincoln Douglas debates, a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote to his daughter signed “Affectionately, Th. Jefferson”, a copy of the first bible printed in this country and a life mask of George Washington for which he had to lie down when the famous French Neo-Classical sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828) came to visit him at Mount Vernon. Houdon was also known for the busts he made of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin when they, themselves, were in France.

The librarian’s office or library annex has for the first time been opened to the public and the only physical change that was made to the building during the restoration. It is a double storied room and the library shelves on the lower section have been turned into vitrines to show Near Eastern art from the collection.

Jennifer Tonkovitch, curator of drawings and prints headed the project renovation with the guidance of the director, William Griswold and the Deputy Director, Brian Egan and she was the one who gave us the tour. In this room she pointed out handles on the library shelves on the second story. These bookshelves pivoted to give access to the second floor of the building. Somehow quite exciting, particularly if you are fond of mystery stories!

The library itself is three stories tall and a most impressive room. A couple of manuscripts have been taken out to show both a spectacular modern and early binding. In some ways even more illuminating as to their importance than the fine manuscripts in the cases where you have to read the labels to learn why they are interesting. For this space a “new” large carpet appropriate for the period was needed and a net was cast internationally to find the right one. In the end it was found at a carpet dealer a few blocks from the Morgan itself!

It is hard to say whether it is the library or Morgan’s study cum office that is the most impressive. Never mind the great paintings, sculptures and manuscripts being shown but this double storied room itself in its fabric covered walls and red velvet upholstery (duplicated from the original fabric) with a large vault in the corner is quite something. So when you have a house full of treasures in the building what does the banker decide to put in his vault? Well, in Morgan’s case it was his 600 medieval manuscripts.

J.P. Morgan was 69 years old when he commissioned the building but it represented a very important statement. This was his private space in the image he wished to project and more importantly wanted to think of himself - the beneficent financier, philanthropist and man of the arts.