When you pass by the Morgan Library & Museum on Madison Avenue in NYC, you know there is a story behind it. The complex of buildings of differing styles and periods cover half a city block. Is it a museum? a research center? a historical residence?
JP Morgan was famous for being a rich and powerful financier. He arranged the merger of Edison General Electric and Thomson-Houston Electric Company to form General Electric. He was a big player in the steel and rail road industries, negotiating with such players as Andrew Carnegie and Charles Schwab. But, as many wealthy power men of the day, JP had other passions besides money. For JP, it was the written word. So much so that he built himself a private library to house his insanely large and valuable collection of rare books and ancient manuscripts.
The Morgan Library was completed in 1906 but it wasn’t until after JP’s death (1913, see photo below) that the library was opened to the public, around 1924. The library still houses many rare books, music manuscripts and has a considerable collection of Victoriana, including one of the most important collections of Gilbert and Sullivan manuscripts and related artifacts but many of the more valuable pieces from his original collection now reside in major museums and other institutions.
Although there are many interesting exhibits at the Morgan, the thing to see is really the library itself.
In 1907, Morgan stopped a major public panic in the U.S. banking system by rallying fellow bankers to supply liquidity to shore up the endangered economy. The crisis was resolved in Morgan’s newly built Library, after he locked the doors and refused to let the bankers leave until they agreed to a rescue plan. Afterwards, Morgan was accused of manipulating the situation for personal gain. This crisis led to the eventual founding of the Federal Reserve (wonder how JP would have handled our last bank bailout!).
One of the most interesting things about the library is its former librarian. Morgan, a man who never allowed women employees to work at his bank, hired a twenty-something African American woman, Belle de Costa Greene. Greene became Morgan’s trusted friend and a powerful woman in the world of rare books, manuscripts and art. She enjoyed a colorful life moving between bohemia and the elite in NYC and beyond. An enormous accomplishment for a young Victorian woman of color. However, she was fair skinned, she presented herself as Portuguese and people seemed to look the other way. You can visit the office where she worked in the North Room of the library. She later became the first Director of the Morgan Library.
The Art Gallery
A major expansion and renovation began in 2001 and a modern building now stands between the 231 Madison mansion and the library. It houses several gallery spaces and a film theater downstairs. Currently, there is a Winston Churchill exhibit housing many of his personal correspondence with family (did you know his mother was born in Brooklyn, New York?) and rough drafts of many of his speeches.
The Brownstone Mansion
In 1882, the Morgan family moved to a brownstone mansion at 219 Madison Avenue, at 36th Street, which remained the family’s City residence throughout JP’s life. This residence was eventually torn down in 1928 to be replaced by an exhibition hall and a reading room. The Italianate brownstone mansion you see today at 231 Madison Avenue (on the corner of 37th Street) was built in 1852 and although purchased by J. P. Morgan in 1904 along with a third mansion, only his son J. P. Morgan Jr. lived there from 1905 to 1938. Sadly, the house is not open to the public. The modern museum store does extend partially into the building or you can get a peek at the original 19th century home by having an elegant lunch or tea service at the Morgan Dining Room restaurant which is located in the original site of the Morgans’ very own restored dining room.
Although the Morgan is relatively small compared to many museums in the city, its historical significance makes it more than a worthwhile visit. Don’t just go to see the art, go to learn about the man… and the woman behind it.
TIP: Admission is free on Fridays from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Admission to the McKim rooms is without charge on: Tuesdays, 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.; Fridays, 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Sundays, 4 p.m to 6 p.m.
An Illuminated Life: Belle Da Costa Green’s Journey from Prejudice to Privilege, by Heidi Ardizzone (this book is also available in the museum shop).
Angela is the History Buff Traveling Mom. In addition to her love of travel and books, she explores the history of NYC houses and their restoration in her blog, BrownstoneCyclone.com.