Reading Room: Renovating the Pierpont Morgan Library

Written for Alexandra Lange’s class Architecture and Urban Design Criticism.

My first glimpse of the main room of McKim, Mead, and White’s Pierpont Morgan Library while on a high school field trip was a life-affirming moment. I’ve loved books and libraries since I was about three, and that initial view of triple-tiered bronze and inlaid Circassian walnut bookcases packed with exquisite volumes right up to the ornate 30-foot ceilings was swoon-worthy, as thrilling as the dream where a previously unnoticed door in your home suddenly opens to reveal a lavish ballroom. The Morgan is one of the few institutions in the United States that collects and exhibits illuminated manuscripts, master drawings, rare books, and literary, historical, and music manuscripts. Alas, you can’t touch or actually read anything at the Morgan. You may, however, stand in the luxurious space smelling of fine leather bindings, old paper, and old money, and imagine sitting by the massive marble fireplace reading for hours on end, uninterrupted. It’s a book lover’s escapist fantasy on a grand scale.

And yet, and yet. The lovely library was always somehow forbidding, too; even after many visits, I never felt quite comfortable there. Pierpont Morgan’s presence is fierce and vivid a century later; his steely glare seems to follow you around making sure you don’t leave greasy fingerprints on the Gutenberg Bible’s vellum pages or quietly pocket a small Assyrian seal. The riches on display still feel like his personal property. Such a lavish show of capital is daunting, a visible barrier between the wealthiest members of society and everyone else. Collections have their own personalities, incorporating attitudes drawn from their collectors, and Mr. Morgan’s library was appropriately intimidating, a private sanctuary for a king.

At most large public institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum, objects from many named sources mingle with anonymous donations in a building that never served as a residence. In contrast, everything in the small and intimate Morgan Library once belonged to a single individual, including the architecture. By hiring McKim, Mead, and White in 1902 after his rapidly multiplying acquisitions outgrew their storage space, Morgan commissioned a piece of significant architecture for his collection and added another jewel to his already heavy crown. The Renaissance-style palazzo on 36th Street, completed in 1906, is considered by many to be principal architect Charles McKim’s masterpiece. Together with the 1852 Morgan Residence and the 1928 Annex along Madison Avenue, the group of structures makes up the Pierpont Morgan Library in its present incarnation as a public enterprise.

Prior to a makeover by Renzo Piano in 2000, the Morgan’s three buildings, set in an L-shape from 36th Street rounding the corner onto Madison and 37th, were connected by an awkward greenhouse-like garden court. Designed by Voorsanger & Associates in 1991 on the former site of the Morgan family’s garden, the court joined the Madison Avenue structures with the original library further east on 36th Street. Visually, the Garden Court was little more than a puzzlement: it didn’t make clear either from the street or once inside that the buildings, which vary greatly in style and appearance, were separate parts of a single entity.

Piano’s strategy altered the overall mood of the place by crafting a logically-structured, unified environment as a showcase for the Morgan’s treasures. His plan added 75,000 square feet for exhibitions and collection storage, a new lecture hall, and reading room; improved internal circulation amongst the buildings; and created a more welcoming entrance on Madison Ave. By excavating down into the Manhattan schist as deep as 55 feet to create storage vaults and the new Gilder Lehrman lecture hall, more than 50% of the new space was added below ground. The scheme allowed Piano to honor the low scale of the existing structures rather than oppress them by piling a tower on top, and permits the addition to blend harmoniously with the surrounding neighborhood.

Piano imagined the buildings as parts of a village, each one a freestanding work in its own right, and linked them with three glass and steel pavilions that meet in a central Italian-style piazza. He considered the historic rooms and galleries to be the equivalent of temples, churches, and public buildings in this scheme while the shop, cafe and more mundane areas were its profane places. The largest pavilion contains the main entrance onto Madison Avenue, the Englehard and Morgan Stanley Galleries, and the Sherman Fairchild Reading Room. A low office tower faces 37th Street and leads into Gilbert Court, and the smallest pavilion (just 20 x 20 x 20 feet) is the Clare Eddy Thaw Gallery located between the Annex and the McKim library on 36th Street. The pavilions snap cleanly into the void between the three original structures almost like a unit of Lego blocks, joining them in the spirit of a town square. Knit together by the Gilbert Court, the buildings now seem like carefully chosen, collected objects themselves.

Viewing the artwork on display at the Morgan is very much like the experience of wandering through a village to visit individual galleries. Each building has a very different feel, and the Morgan’s curators tailor the offerings accordingly. The tiny Thaw Gallery is the perfect setting for small, tightly focused shows such as the only surviving manuscript of John Milton’s Paradise Lost along with just two printed versions of the final poem and four related engravings, a small but significant exhibit that would be dwarfed by a larger space. In the much bigger Annex, the Morgan Stanley East and West galleries and rotunda are large enough to accommodate more comprehensive shows.

The Eastern gallery is reserved for a rotating selection of the library’s extensive holdings, and the rotunda and Western gallery are used for exhibits dedicated to a single topic, such as the early drafts and watercolors for the Babar series of books by Jean and Laurent de Brunhoff. As a space, the Annex is as bland as any gallery and fades into the background, allowing guests to focus on the art. Not true of Mr. Morgan’s library, where the entire building is a gem and exhibits are kept to a few small cases in the rotunda and book room. Anything more would be a futile effort to compete with an interior of unsurpassed grandeur. It was an intelligent architectural decision to attempt to exploit rather than minimize the differences among such disparate buildings, one that emphasizes the nature of the institution as a collection of buildings which in turn houses a collection of objects, a nuanced and layered approach.

The new construction is quiet and unimposing from the outside. Starting from the library and walking west along 36th Street, the Thaw Gallery is meant to be seen as an architectural hyphen between the library and the Annex. It is an unassuming cube of glass and steel set back from the street, painted a creamy hue to match the Tennessee pink marble of both Library and Annex. The exceptionally clear low-iron glass is almost invisible. These materials were chosen for both practical and metaphoric reasons; as masonry was an “honest” material a hundred years ago, steel is today’s honest building element. By keeping parallel to the thought process used by McKim but not literally imitating his materials, Piano was able to execute a modern conceptual homage instead of a slavish copy.

Turning the corner and facing the Madison Avenue frontage, the Morgan’s main entrance is formed by a continuation of the structural grid of three-foot-wide glass and steel panels extending from the upper stories down to meet the street, creating a vestibule that is spare and modern, unadorned yet nonetheless inviting. It addresses and solves the dilemma posed by the former way in through the Annex building, reminiscent of a service entrance because of its location on the side street. Once inside, visitors were deposited into a tiny vestibule leading to a lifeless beige rotunda and then on to the collections. Not a very auspicious beginning to an afternoon spent with some of the world’s rarest books and manuscripts. The new entrance has both presence of place and a sense of anticipation. It welcomes you through two sets of tall doors into a sleek space with pale oak floors and smooth cherry wood paneling, then delivers you into the vast light-filled 3-story piazza of the glass and steel Gilbert Court.

Vertical mullions frame the Court’s windows into narrow tall rectangles, emphasizing the room’s feeling of great height, and provide views of brick prewar apartments behind the museum through a row of bamboo plants. The traffic along Madison Avenue and the people on gallery balconies high above or gliding silently up and down in square glass elevators allow the vibrant movement of New York City to animate the space despite the quiet. The transparency also offers what Piano called “the friendly urbanistic gesture” of allowing pedestrians on the Avenue to catch quick, tantalizing glimpses of the interior as they pass.

Abundant natural light is a hallmark of Piano’s work, and it is generously used here. The skylight roof of the Gilbert Court is shielded by a complex system of metal screens, shades, and blinds to regulate the amount of illumination entering from overhead. The diffuse brightness provides a dramatic contrast to the gloom of the McKim library accessed through the back right-hand side of the court. This entrance, tucked away in a far corner and not treated in any sort of attention-getting way, feels a bit low key and drab. It’s oddly modest, considering the luxury that awaits a visitor once he steps through the ornate 1906 bronze door, and ideally might have been treated more dramatically. Returning into the bright court from the library building feels like stepping from the past back into the present, a return to the modern world after a journey through a vanished era.

Currently on display in the Library’s main book room is the original manuscript of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, written hastily in 6 weeks because Dickens was flat broke and needed to raise capital fast. The scrawled pages are nearly illegible, riddled with cross-outs, blots, and strikethroughs. To look at them is to hear the wolf scratching at the door. Contrast the image of the desperate scribbler in his rented rooms with the well fed Mr. Morgan contentedly puffing one of his favorite Cuban cigars before a blazing fireplace in his McKim, Mead and White library, its tapestry The Triumph of Avarice (inscribed in Latin, “As Tantalus is ever thirsty in the midst of water, so is the miser always desirous of riches,”) occupying a place of honor over the mantel.

Both personalities still roam the Pierpont Morgan Library to this day, with room for a third presence: that of the general public. Piano’s renovation frees the buildings just enough from the iron grip of their original owner without diminishing their architectural impact in any way. By recontextualizing them as collected museum objects themselves, they now fit neatly into a village scheme with a feeling of free democratic access instead of the exclusive atmosphere of a gated community closed to all but the privileged few.

December 15, 2008

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