THE MORGAN LIBRARY
33 East 36th Street
Developer: J. Pierpont Morgan
Architect: McKim Mead & White (original midblock library building); Benjamin Wistar Morris (annex at the Madison Avenue comer at 36th Street), Voorsanger & Mills (rear extension and renovation of brownstone building at Madison Avenue comer at 37th Street)
Erected: 1906 (library); 1928 (annex); 1993 (extension); 1853 (Stokes building)
By Carter B. Horsley
J. P. Morgan was the most influential financier at the turn of the century and by his death in 1913 had become the nation!s greatest art collector.
Sadly, his art collection was widely dispersed and many of his greatest masterpieces are not on view here.
About 40 percent went to the Metropolitan Museum, where he had served as chairman of its board of trustees for many years and a fair bit went to the superb Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, Conn., his hometown. His greatest booty, however, ended up elsewhere. The spectacular large Fragonard panels, "The Loves of the Shepherds," commissioned by Madame du Barry for the Chateau de Louveciennes are now at The Frick Collection as well as Constable's "The White Horse" and the powerful Hercules bronze statue by Polliauolo; the lun-finous "A Lady Writing" by Vermeer is at the National Gallery of Art in Washington; and "Portrait of Giovanna Tomabuoni" by Domenico Ghirlandaio is in the Thyssen-Bomemisza Collection.
Still, the residue, including his glorious library with sensational illuminated manuscripts, is most
Very few complete major private collections of great Western European art have survived: The Frick Collection on Fifth Avenue and 70th Street being a rare exception. As magnificent as the Frick is, Morgan was a far grander collector!
Morgan lived in a brownstone on the northeast comer of Madison Avenue at 36th Street when he commissioned Whitney Warren (of Warren & Wetmore) around 1900 to design a library and gallery building in a garden on an adjacent midblock property. Warren's design called for a modem French pavilion with a domed entrance, but Morgan, who had kept many of his best treasures in a major house in England, subsequently asked in 1902 for a new plan from Charles McKim of McKim, Mead & White. McKim's plan was based in part on Baldassare Peruzzi's 1536 Palazzo Massimi in Rome and its main facade is formidably formal and quite stark Palladian-style porch with a pair of niches. The building had a deeply recessed arched entrance with sculptured paneled doors by Adolph A. Weinman leading into a dazzling but modest rotunda flanked on the east by a three-tier vaulted library and on the west by Morgan's large study.
The marble building's exterior walls were set without mortar because McKim was impressed with Greek architecture and the rotunda and the library boast lively and colorful ceiling murals by Henry Siddons Mowbray, a major artist of the American Renaissance.
Morgan's will called for his brownstone home to be replaced with an expansion for the library and this neoclassical structure was designed by Benjamin Wistar Morris, best known for the spectacular former Cunard Building at 25 Broadway downtown, and was completed in 1928. This extension, which housed the only public entrance, is used for exhibitions of the library's superb drawing collection and for touring exhibitions. It is connected to the original library by a handsome wing that was also used for exhibitions and housed the library's shop until the 1993 extension.
With the acquisition of the large brownstone building at 231 Madison Avenue at 37th Street comer, the library made a major expansion designed by Voorsanger & Mills and completed in 1993. The brownstone was built in 1853 as the home of Isaac N. Phelps, whose family founded the Phelps Dodge Corporation. It was one of three brownstones on the avenue on the street that shared rear gardens and stables. (A Stokes descendant, I. N. Phelps Stokes wrote "The Iconography of Manhattan Island," one of the most important research resources on the city.) Morgan bought the southern brownstone for himself and subsequently acquired the other two for his family and his son, J. P. Morgan Jr., who headed the Morgan bank from 1913 to 1945, lived in the Phelps mansion. The Phelps house was subsequently acquired by the Lutheran Church of America who unsuccessfully opposed its designation in 1965 as an official city landmark. Eager to build an office building, the church persevered against its landmark designation and succeeded in getting it de-designated in 1974.
Voorsanger & Mills' expansion in 1993 deftly merged the brownstone into library/gallery complex by means by a very lyrical and poetic glasshouse wing that is recessed from the avenue.
The visual analogy employed between the disparate wings was the crashing of a crystal wave and the architects neatly repeated its vertical form in part of its skylit cafe between the two wings, a very uncrowded, elegant and uplifting space that leads up a few stairs to an expanded and relocated shop and bookstore in the brownstone wing, which contains no exhibition spaces, but conference rooms and offices.
The transition from the library, shown above in a photograph by Ezra Stoller, to the skylit cafe, however, is Su risi modem and without the sense of extravagant luxury that permeates the south wings. It is not bad, of course, but desperately needs some important Medieval or Romanesque Art like the great bronze statue of a saint in the pool area of The Frick Collection.
Expansion, it must be said, has raised difficult and unsettling questions for both the Morgan and Frick museums.
The Frick tom down a perfectly fine Widener mansion on East 70th Street to create a large, fenced-off garden, which is pretty but insanely absurd given the beauty of its Fifth Avenue garden and Central Park across the avenue. The Frick should recreate the Widener mansion and continue its very slow and deliberate acquisition policy of incredible masterpieces. Since the Frick is the greatest and nicest museum in the Western Hemisphere it is unlikely to have trouble getting some public contributions.
At the Morgan, the expansion has made its pathetically small gardens splendidly more enjoyable by visitors because of the midblock cafe, accessible only through the museum and not from the street. One wonders, however, whether the expansion is justified for the only added exhibition space is the relatively small former shop space in the corridor between the library and the 1928 annex. To go through such a tortuous and expensive exercise and only get a small cafe and some offices and conference rooms does not seem a grand enough scheme for such a grand acquisitor as J. P. Morgan. The museum has incredible treasures and great drawings do not have many showcases.
Part of the Phelps mansion therefore should be converted to exhibition spaces and that simply means hanging some thin wires from the room's moldings. Its interior is quite elegant, as is, obviously, its balcony railing shown below, and has been well restored. It just needs to be put to a proper and fitting use. The Metropolitan Museum should lend some of the incredible objets d'art given it by Morgan to this fine museum that is greatly needed in midtown.