Perhaps it’s because I made a personal blood oath many years ago to distance myself from everything having to do with finance, but I only recently discovered that J.P Morgan–yes, the John Pierpont Morgan, leading financier of the Progressive Era that basically transformed the face of American business and whose company is a coveted sanctuary for business and finance enthusiasts everywhere–was actually a raging bibliophile. At the very least, he appreciated the power that amassing a large collection of rare and precious manuscripts gave him, and modern bibliophiles don’t seem to mind this too much because–well, come on, the man had three Gutenberg Bibles in his home along with Mainz Psalter. He may not have been a scholar or a connoisseur, but Morgan had a keen eye when it came to quality, which seemed to have done him well when that eye was extended from finance and business to the arts.
The Morgan Library and Museum on 36th and Madison isn’t exactly an obscure museum, but its foot traffic doesn’t hold a candle to the Metropolitan Museum or the MoMA and it’s actually rather quaint as far as New York City museums go. The admission price is also nothing to sneeze at. Considering the breadth and refinement of Morgan’s tastes, however, the few bills you’ll be handing over are certainly worth it. Born in 1837 in Hartford, Connecticut, Morgan had already been collecting illuminated, literary, and historical manuscripts as well as early printed books as early as 1890. His library was built between 1902 and 1906 next to his Madison Avenue residence and was designed by Charles McKim from the McKim, Mead & White architectural firm (nothing but the best for Mr. Morgan, of course). What resulted was an Italian-Renaissance style palazzo that was considered to be McKim’s magnum opus and what would soon be one of the most impactful cultural gifts in American history. Not only does the museum give you access to Morgan’s 1906 library (along with some of his rarer conquests), it also has some pretty impressive periodic exhibitions like original French oil paintings, drawings from Sir John Soane’s Museum, and some site specific installations from Spencer Finch.
The library and the study are the real gems of the museum. Of course, if you’re interested in the Gutenberg bibles, the Mainz Psalter, and the other original illuminated manuscripts that Morgan collected, you’ll certainly see them on display. But just walking around the library and reading along the bookshelves that have been tucked away behind glass and metal barriers gives you a taste of the hundreds of books Morgan managed to procure. From what I could tell, Morgan seemed to have acquired every written piece Rousseau had ever published–I Googled to make sure–had multiple full-volume collections of Pride and Prejudice, had an entire wall of shelves devoted to Mark Twain’s writings, had novels in five different languages, and even had a small bookshelf in his library devoted to little fairy tale and fable books that could fit in the palm of my hand that were probably meant for his children. The shelves continue for thirty feet up into the balconies above the main floor of the library. If books aren’t to your taste, The Triumph of Avarice tapestry depicting the Seven Deadly Sins hangs above the Istrian marble-carved mantlepiece paired with a fierce and imposing looking fireplace. Overall, an elegant library swathed in overt opulence, perfect for a finance mogul.
The study immediately seemed like a scene pulled straight from Jane Eyre and the haunted bedroom of her Uncle Reed, though without all the feelings of trauma and hysteria. The walls were covered in red damask with the Chigi coat of arms (an eight pointed star and a mountain formation) and a variety of works by Italian Renaissance masters. The Bronte collection within the bookshelves is worth ogling if you feel like kneeling down to look into the bookshelves near Morgan’s desk, which is a daunting old thing where Morgan sat behind to entertain all of his friends and colleagues that mattered. Probably the most notable part of the study was Morgan’s vault, an extension of Morgan’s study that seemed more like a stereotypical secret room more than anything else, which housed some of Morgan’s more valuable collections. Lined with steel and secured with a combination lock, it was very much like a bank vault. Fitting for one of America’s most successful financiers ever.
The museum is a restoration of one of the most architecturally stimulating libraries of one of the most powerful men in the United States. In it is some of the most valuable collections of art were housed for close to a century, all in one easily accessible location. Renting out the audio tour is definitely worth it, especially if you’re a fan of music manuscripts and would like to listen to a selection from a symphony while examining the first rough, original manuscript of that very symphony. Or, if getting up close and personal with the original writings of literary masterminds is appealing to you, original copies of Shakespearian quartos and low-key Twain novels are cased everywhere. It’s a small museum, but one you should take your time to explore (as is the case with most museums that double as historical sites). Plus, it is one of the very few museum/historical sites where taking pictures is allowed, which I found to be a particular treat seeing as how New York museums of this sort– the Frick Museum being the first that comes to mind– are often purely see-only experiences. Book collectors and art appreciators alike will find this a wonderful place to spend an afternoon and take the time to appreciate in its entirety.
The Morgan Library and Museum is located on 225 Madison Ave, New York, NY 10016
Gabriella Reynoso is a member of the editorial board of The Columbia Review.