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American Lives

New York City: Pierpont Morgan Library (NY)

by Laurie Stevens, 5 August 2023

 

Pierpont Morgan Library, New York City, New York
Photo © Morgan Library & Museum

The Morgan Library started as J Pierpont Morgan's collection of rare books, manuscripts, and objects, and is one of the great repositories of culture in the western hemisphere. Pierpont Morgan's son, J P Morgan Jr, established the museum in 1924.

Shown here is the exterior of 219 Madison Avenue, the home of J Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913), looking north-west from 36th Street, and showing the ivy-covered house, extension, and conservatory before 1928.

The museum is composed of several buildings, acquisitions, and newer wings gained over the years which are all considered part of the collection in themselves. The building here was purchased by Morgan Sr for use as his own residence, but it was demolished in 1928 to make way for an annex to the library.

Pierpont Morgan Library, New York City, New York
Photo © Laurie Stevens

On view here at the Morgan Library are three period rooms from Morgan's original library, plus changing exhibitions in several galleries, both in the old and new parts of the complex.

Above is the 'East Room', the actual library, which has on display at all times a Guttenberg Bible (Mainz, circa 1455), one of three in the collection.

The tapestry above the mantel is from sixteenth-century Brussels. It depicts 'The Triumph of Avarice', and was designed by Pieter van Aelst, father-in-law of Pieter Breughel 'The Elder'.

Pierpont Morgan Library, New York City, New York
Photo © Laurie Stevens

Within the ceiling decorations, designed by H Siddons Mowbray, are zodiacal signs which refer to important dates in Morgan's life: his birth, the date of his first wife's death, and the date of his second marriage.

The museum is known for its Renaissance manuscripts, Old Master drawings, early and rare printed books - including children's books, ancient written records with Assyrian and Babylonian seals, cuneiform tablets. and Egyptian papyri.

Pierpont Morgan Library, New York City, New York
Photo © Laurie Stevens

The opulence of 'The Gilded Age' is evident in the interior of the library in the original home, designed in a palazzo-type style by celebrated architect of the time, Charles Follen McKim, of McKim, Mead & White. This is 'Mr Morgan's Library', as it came to be known.

Today the library covers half a city block in a complex of buildings of different eras and in differing styles, but is intimate and elegant in its integration.

One can see up-close and personal at the Morgan Library a kind of history of creation with hand-written drafts and final versions of works by Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde, Beethoven, George Washington, and Napoleon, amongst many others. The conservators and digitizers of the collection strive to ensure that the collections are accessible today and into the future for all who come to research here.

Main Sources

Morgan Library & Museum

Blue Guide New York Third Edition, Carol Von Pressentin Wright, Stuart Miller and Sharon Seitz

 

Images and text copyright © Laurie Stevens except where stated. An original feature for the History Files: American Lives.