Having recently done two posts (#252 and #253) about John Pierpont Morgan, once hailed as an Alexander the Great of finance and vilified accordingly, I thought it behooved me to visit the library that he built to house his vast collections. That library has since been expanded into a museum, but with the original structure preserved and restored to what it looked like in his time. So I went to the Morgan Library and Museum at Madison Avenue and East 36th Street to check it out, and a series of revelations resulted.
Before entering on Madison Avenue, I made a short side trip down 36th Street to see the original façade and entrance. And there it was: architect Charles McKim’s Italian Renaissance façade, sober to the point of plain, its pink marble now a quiet gray, with only scant adornments, and an imposing entrance with two monumental bronze doors approached by steps flanked by recumbent lionesses.
|Beyond My Ken|
Revelation #1: Chaste simplicity, the very opposite of the Victorian busyness and clutter embodied in that other library celebrated in post #255, my beloved Jefferson Market Library, built in the 1870s as a courthouse. The two libraries could not differ more: classical symmetry vs. Victorian Gothic asymmetry, monochrome discipline vs. polychrome fantasy, restraint vs. freedom that inches toward the wild and the crazy. (The Jefferson Market Library was inspired architecturally by Neuschwanstein, the fairy-tale castle created by Ludwig II, the mad king of Bavaria.)
I then proceeded into the interior through a spacious modern entrance that the founder might not have approved of. My goal was the original McKim building, so I went there directly, ignoring all the other displays, not to mention the café and bookstore. After only a brief trek and up a short flight of stairs, I found myself in the Rotunda, which visitors in Morgan’s time first entered, via the monumental bronze doors flanked by lionesses.
Revelation #2: Grandeur. This was the first impression Morgan wanted his visitors to have. I barely noticed the marble columns and floor, for my eye immediately went up to the ornate domed ceiling and, in the apse of the curved north wall, a multitude of panels in blue and white stucco reliefs, their subjects unclear to me, but patterned on works by Raphael. The room wasn’t vast – much smaller than the Pantheon in Rome – but, lit by a skylight overhead, it gave the impression of vastness and light. This, and not the ceiling paintings by an American artist, or the rare manuscripts on display, was what held me.
|Ceiling and apse of the Rotunda|
Opening off the Rotunda are an East Room, a West Room, and a North Room. I went next to the East Room, Morgan’s library, and was overwhelmed.
Revelation #3: Ornateness beyond belief, the most sumptuous room I have ever experienced, contrasting vividly with the chasteness of the exterior. A richly decorated ceiling, walls lined with three tiers of inlaid walnut bookcases behind glass panes, murals above the top tier, a monumental fireplace and, above it, a huge 16th-century Brussels tapestry whose subject I could barely make out, but that I knew represented Avarice, which one might, or might not, take as an ironic comment on the whole ensemble. (Morgan did not think of himself as greedy.) Since two upholstered benches were available to visitors, I plunked myself down on one and for several minutes savored the rich feast all around me – the ceiling and its murals, the bookcases, and the thick patterned rug beneath me. Thanks to that rug, the presence of only a few visitors, and building’s thick walls and doors, I experienced another revelation.
|The East Room|
Revelation #4: Quiet. In this well insulated treasure house, the roar of traffic on Madison Avenue isn’t simply muted, it is eliminated. In Morgan’s time this was a tranquil residential neighborhood, but there would have been some commotion of horse-drawn wagons and carriages on the streets, but none of it penetrated his library. Here he could leave the brouhaha of Wall Street and the babble of society behind, and immerse himself in his vast collection of rare old books. Getting up from the bench, I approached the glass-paned bookcases of the lowest tier and surveyed scores of fine-bound books, some modern (the works of Anatole France) and some old (a plethora of Bibles), most of them with bright gilt lettering on the bindings. And there were two more tiers above me, accessible (though not to me) by two hidden stairways, the tiers covering all the walls except for the entrance, the fireplace and its tapestry, and two stained-glass windows – more books than anyone could read, or even skim, in two lifetimes. And these books were only part of his collection! Which brought another revelation.
Revelation #5: Compulsive collecting. Morgan’s collecting was more than a hobby; it was an obsession, a compulsion. He bought en masse – statues, paintings, ceramics, and especially rare manuscripts and books. If a book was elegantly bound, he wanted it, and if it was old and rare and of great value, he wanted it even more, and he never stooped to haggle. He bought boxes and boxes of them and shipped them home to be stored in his library, where some of them are now displayed in glass cases. In one case I saw, side by side, an illustrated book of hours, several Gospel books, and a deck of tarot cards. In another, an 11th-century Gospel book in Latin with a richly jeweled cover – the most sumptuous book cover that I have ever seen. Posted information tells viewers that it was bought by J.P. Morgan, Jr., in 1920, but the son’s taste reflected that of the father. I could well imagine old J.P., his knowledge of medieval Latin probably matching mine, gently caressing the gem-studded cover. But he didn’t just buy books. In a corner nearby was a statue of Saint Elizabeth in lindenwood, polychromed with gilt decoration, German, from the 16th Century, bought by Morgan in 1911 --- another prize to be displayed to invited guests.
After the East Room library, you might think anything else an anticlimax, but I knew better, for I went next, and eagerly, to the West Room, his study. This was where, to stop the Panic of 1907, he locked in some fifty bank presidents and refused to let them leave, until they had collectively promised in writing to fork over $25 million to keep two trust companies from failing, failures that would have provoked still more failures and panic. To see the scene of that momentous crisis, and the room where he spent much of every day in his later years, was why I had come to the library, even more than to see the opulence of the West Room.
And I wasn’t disappointed. This room too is ornate, but less overwhelming than the library, more restful, more intimate. On the red silk walls (closely resembling the original red damask) hang Italian and Flemish paintings of the Renaissance, while low bookcases along the east and south walls house yet more books. Over a monumental 15th-century mantelpiece on the west wall is an 1888 gilt-framed portrait of Morgan himself, massively seated, solemn, with an earnest gaze that, when he was intensely focused or angry, could cut right through you. In the fireplace, as in the East Room’s fireplace, is a pile of birch logs whose peeling white bark adds a nice, homey touch, presumably provided by the museum for atmosphere, since the fumes from a log fire could have damaged the collections. Yet another source has the old boy sitting for hours by the fire, smoking a cigar, and playing solitaire, his cigar smoke damaging the original red damask walls. So maybe he did puff away there, knowing his books were safe in glass-fronted bookcases, and his manuscripts locked away in the study’s vault.
Much of the study’s furniture was commissioned by Morgan in the Renaissance style, including his desk in front of the east wall, flanked by two Savonarola chairs, and behind the desk, an ornate thronelike chair upholstered, like the rest of the furniture, in red. Between two stained-glass windows in the north wall hangs another portrait -- of Morgan, I assumed -- in a bright red robe covering his usual dark suit. Certainly the color matched the room’s walls and upholstery, but did the man fancy himself a cardinal as well? A pamphlet available to visitors explains that this is a 1934 portrait of his son, J.P. Morgan, Jr., showing him in an Oxford (some sources say Cambridge) University robe, since the university had awarded him an honorary degree. The son looks very much like the father, with the same massive presence and earnest gaze.
Over a corner doorway in the south wall is an oval painting, a Madonna and child, that I immediately pegged as a Botticelli – not too far off, since it turns out to be from the school of the master. And the doorway below it gives a glimpse into the West Room Vault, its walls lined by McKim with steel, access to which was, in Morgan’s time, through a heavy door with a combination lock. In the vault were lodged his most valuable medieval manuscripts, though today it holds other items on display.
After the library and the study, the North Room, once the office of Morgan’s full-time librarian/director, was indeed an anticlimax. In it are more displays, more books, and yet another monumental fireplace with yet another stack of peeling birch logs. But coming away from the original building, I chanced on a small gallery containing Hans Memling’s reunited 15th-century altarpiece, seen for the first time in this country, thanks to loans from Belgium and Italy. Morgan himself never saw it complete, since he acquired only two side panels that he hung on the red damask walls of the study, flanking his desk. Also on display in the gallery are several remarkable Memling portraits and other works, which, combined with all I had seen already, brought me to my final revelation.
Revelation #6: Morgan a prince of the Renaissance. Not for nothing did McKim, constantly harassed by his constant “suggestions,” refer to him as Lorenzo the Magnificent. Morgan was following in the footsteps of the Medici, Florentine bankers turned patrons of the arts and finally princes who ruled over Florence. No, he didn’t plan to rule, but as a soberly dressed banker/collector he lived amid all the splendor of a prince. What was behind his compulsive collecting? As an American, to outdo the monarchs of the Old World? A desire to achieve greatness beyond that of a banker who almost singlehandedly could stop the worst of panics? A longing to secure Old World treasures against the ravages of history and time, and make them accessible to his fellow citizens? Perhaps all of that.
Yet Morgan was not, in the usual sense of the word, a social climber. While the newly moneyed Astors and Vanderbilts played leapfrog on the upper Fifth Avenue, each trying to outdo the other by building yet another palatial residence, he was content to live quietly in his brownstone mansion on the lower Avenue in Murray Hill. And if, in his younger days, he was never invited to the annual Astor ball, where the Mrs. Astor received, to the number of four hundred, the slightly curdled cream of New York society, he probably didn’t care. Why should he? He was a friend of kings and emperors.
J.P. Morgan was no more aware than Mrs. Astor of the plight of the city’s poor, revealed vividly in his own time by the photographs of Jacob Riis, but he was certain that his rare collections would benefit the nation in the long run. So there you have it, as revealed so fully in the Morgan Library: Pierpont the Magnificent, a generous patron of the arts, an American Medici, a modern banker turned prince of the Renaissance. Whatever we think of Morgan the banker, our lives have been enriched by Morgan the collector.
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My poems: For five acceptable poems, click here and scroll down. To avoid five terrible poems, don't click here. For my poem "The Other," inspired by the Orlando massacre, click here.
My books: No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World, my selection of posts from this blog, has received these awards: the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016. For the Reader Views review by Sheri Hoyte, go here. As always, the book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), my historical novel about a young male prostitute in the late 1860s in New York who falls in love with his most difficult client, is likewise available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Coming soon: Parlez-vous Yiddish? Sprechen Sie Creole? Habla Chinese? How many languages do you think are spoken in New York? A glance at the polyglot city.
© 2016 Clifford Browder