As a book lover, I’ve always loved libraries. And the older the books, the better! That’s why I so enjoy visiting the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City.
The Morgan Library’s founder, Pierpont Morgan (also sometimes referred to as J.P. Morgan) was a powerful financier in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the 1890s, Morgan began collecting rare books, gems, art, and other items for his own personal collection. By 1902, Morgan realized that he needed a special place to house his collection. His solution was to build a free-standing library next to his home in New York City, designed by architect Charles McKim. After Pierpont Morgan’s death in 1913, his son J.P. Morgan, Jr. ultimately decided to turn the library into a public institution in 1924, open to visitors, and he further enlarged the space to house more exhibitions.
My favorite part of the library is Pierpont Morgan’s original library space, which is comprised of three main rooms, a vault, and an entrance hall. First, let’s look at a few details from the entrance hall, known as the Rotunda. You’ll spend a lot of time looking up in this room, as the ceilings are detailed and magnificent.
Here is Pierpont Morgan’s study. The room’s perimeter is cloaked in low, enclosed bookcases that display various small sculptures. Above the bookcases, the walls are covered with a rich red patterned wallpaper. There are a number of paintings which, like the sculptures, are part of Morgan’s original art collection. The ceiling is intricately carved dark wood, and there is an imposing fireplace opposite Morgan’s desk.
In front of the fireplace is this copy of the Book of Hours, a medieval prayer book with beautiful hand illustrations. The description said it is from approximately 1460.
Just through a doorway from the study is the vault, where Morgan kept many of his most prized items. Today, it is mostly for display, but some of the books on the shelves are ones that Morgan commissioned to catalogue his collections. It was a fascinating room, with an upper level that’s only accessible from a ladder and narrow metal mezzanine. (The upper level isn’t visible from this photo, unfortunately – I couldn’t get a good angle to take a photo of it.)
The Librarian’s Office is a smaller space, but still very interesting. It’s two stories tall, with a mezzanine level packed with books. The exhibitions in this room are fascinating – among them, pieces of cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia, approximately 2000 to 3000 years old, and ancient Mesopotamian cylinder seals, with examples of their imprints. (Make sure that you look up in the Library’s Office as well, as it has an amazing painted ceiling.
Finally, there’s the Library itself. This room is impressive, with its double mezzanine, detailed walls, and stone fireplace.
In the Rotunda and Library’s cases are just a few more examples of the breadth of Pierpont Morgan’s collections, such as a life mask of George Washington, first President of the United States; a copy of the original edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass; a letter written by nineteenth-century mathematician Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, who is often credited with founding modern scientific computing; the draft copy of several chapters of English poet Siegfried Sassoon’s memoir about his military experiences during World War I; and the manuscript of John Keats’s Endymion, dated 1818. There is also this portion of the 1771 manuscript of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Symphony No. 15 in F Major.
As well as this copy of the Gutenberg Bible (actually just one volume of the two volume set), one of three copies that are part of Morgan’s collection. These Bibles were part of the first set of books printed with movable type in 1455, signaling the beginning of mass printing of books. What’s amazing is that fewer than 50 full and partial copies of the Gutenberg Bible still exist today (there were originally 180 printed), and Morgan collected three of those.
Modern additions to the Library have added additional exhibition spaces which host a variety of excellent temporary exhibitions. There are two dining options as well: a casual cafe, and a second restaurant, located in the Morgan family’s original home, which draws inspiration from New York dining options in the early twentieth century. Don’t forget to check out the Library’s gift shop. If you need a gift for someone who loves books (or are looking for a unique souvenir for yourself), you will find endless unique items there.
Are you a book lover who would like to visit the Morgan Library & Museum yourself? The Library is located 225 Madison Avenue (the cross street is 36th Street). Numerous subway lines stop within several blocks. If traveling by subway, you can take the 6 train to 33rd Street; the B, D, F, or Q to 42nd Street or 34th Street; the M, N, or R to 34th Street; or the 4, 5, 6, or 7 to Grand Central Terminal. If coming from outside the city, you can take the PATH train to 33rd Street or other trains that go to Grand Central. There are also several buses that stop at 34th Street, including the M2, M3, M4, and Q32 (Going uptown, the bus stops are on Madison Avenue; going downtown, they stop instead one block over on Fifth Avenue. Going downtown, the M4 stops at 37th instead of 34th.)