A miniature palace of rare books is hiding in one of the busiest parts of Manhattan. All you have to do to enter is walk past the foyer of 225 Madison Ave and push a button deep in the back right corner. A door will swing open into a space that feels like it rolled right out of the Vatican City.
Welcome to Mr. Morgan’s library, as in Mr. JP Morgan. Since 1906, this has been the very grand storage space for his collection of rare books, manuscripts, and antiquities.
Morgan picked the Murray Hill area as it was just a stone’s throw from his home at 219 Madison Avenue, and by 1924, his son, J.P. John Pierpont Morgan, Jr., made the library a public institution and one of the country’s grandest meccas for book lovers, and anyone who feels like taking a breather from the NY grind to fall into a fairytale for an hour or two…
A photograph from the inside of his home’s equally ornate study shows what the Murray Hill library must have looked like in its prime:
The library is a series of connected buildings varying in style, and cost $1.2 million to build over a century ago. Its most recent renovation is a stunning modernist foyer by Italian architect Renzo Piano, which juxtaposes the rich Classical Revival space with his glass elevators and walls…
A representative of the museum says Morgan was a “voracious collector… From the beginning, it was clear that Morgan’s collecting tastes could only be described as encyclopedic—what he amassed in such a short period encompassed virtually the full range of artistic and human achievement in Western civilization, from antiquity to modern times.” In the last two years of his life alone, the ailing Morgan invested over $60 million to round out his collection — the current equivalent of $900 million.
There’s something quite romantic about the way the collection is presented today. At any given moment, you’ll see an otherwise ordinary looking note labelled, “Letter from a lovesick Alexander Hamilton” beneath the glow of the main rotunda’s domed ceiling, which was inspired by Raphael, or the scrawlings of composers like Mozart and Debussy.
From the rotunda, which is truly the belly of the beast, the space branches out into three other rooms: Morgan’s study, his librarian’s office, and the main library, whose meticulously arranged manuscripts and books look nearly surreal due to their sheer mass…
It’s hard to walk around without constantly having your neck craned upwards, but it pays to pay attention to detail. You won’t wanna miss the documents of Claude Debussy, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, Georges Sand, and, oh yeah, one of the Gutenberg Bibles. No biggie.
There are also drawings by DaVinci, Rembrandt, Picasso, and just about every other creative giant under the sun. One of the real winners Mozart’s penultimate piano concerto manuscript:
The librarian’s office is like a bite-sized version of the room, and was long presided over by Belle da Costa Greene, who was a budding librarian prodigy from Princeton when Morgan hired her. In the words of a museum representative, “her intelligence, passion, and self-confidence eclipsed her relative inexperience. She managed to help build one of America’s greatest private libraries”.
And then there’s Morgan’s own study: a space swallowed in deep red velvet walls, cushions, and the inimitable smell of old New York money. There’s even a special vault for some of his favourite selections, whose door is cracked open for your peering pleasure:
Learn more about visiting the Morgan Library here.