Thursday, January 23, 2020

The 1906 Morgan Library - 33 East 36th Street

photo by Beyond My Ken

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries it was not uncommon for millionaire collectors to have art galleries included in the plans for their mansions; or to built opulent gallery buildings adjoining already standing residences.  In 1903 financier J. Pierpont Morgan, Sr. took the concept to a new level.

Morgan and his family lived in the brownstone mansion on the northeast corner of Madison Avenue and 36th Street, built for John Jay Phelps in 1853.  Behind it, at No. 33 East 36th Street, was the former home of William Bird.  On February 1, 1902 The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that Morgan had purchased and demolished that home and hired McKim, Mead & White to design a "two story marble library."  Charles Follen McKim was the principal architect of the structure, the cost of which was estimated at $300,000--about $8.83 million in today's dollars.

As the project got off the ground, Morgan expanded his holdings around his mansion.  Within a month of the death of Mrs. William E. Dodge in March 1903 he purchased her house, No. 225 Madison Avenue, directly next door to his.  And in November 1904 he purchased the Anson Phelps Stokes house on the northern corner of the block as a gift to his son, J. P. Morgan, Jr. and his wife.  Mrs. Stokes had an asking price of $1 million on that property.

A nicely dressed man surveys the construction site from atop a rock.  The backs of the Morgan mansion (left), the Dodge house (center) and the Phelps residence can be seen.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Construction on the library and gallery was not completed until June 1906.  The the design the Morgan Library was an amalgamation of bits and pieces of Italian Renaissance structures--sort of an architectural Lego project in marble with stunning results.  McKim's inspiration for the entrance, for instance, came from both the 16th century Villa Medici and the Villa Giulia.

The Villa Medici, built around 1544 for Cardinal Ricci via
The top level of the Nymphaeum of the Villa Giulia, designed by Bartolomeo Ammannati for Pope Julius III was a model for the entrance.  photo by Mongolo1984

McKim's biographer, Alfred Hoyt Granger later said "Mr. Morgan gave Mr. McKim a free hand to do anything he liked, which shows what the great financier's opinion was of the great architect."  The lavish budget was reflected inside.  The entrance Rotunda was based on the Villa Madama in Rome.  Artist Harry Siddons Mowbray based his designs on those of Raphael and Pinturiccio.  The complex marble floor was a near copy of one found in the Villa Pia in the Vatican gardens.

The sumptuous ceiling of the Morgan Rotunda -- photograph by Purpleturtle52-KH
The through the doorway of the Rotunda can be seen Morgan's library.  Two of the four marble pillars can be seen, each costing $60,000 at the time, according to a contemporary report.  photo via the Morgan Library & Museum
The largest of the spaces was the library--built to house Morgan's astonishing collection of rare books.  The inlaid Circassian walnut bookcases, the study ceiling and a few doors were the only wooden elements in the building--a reflection of Morgan's intense fear of fire.  

The bronze grills of the bookcase doors matched the exquisite bronze fencing outside.  A construction worker confided to a reporter from the New-York Tribune, "Every one of those bars in the fence was twisted by hand.  That costs money, but Mr. Morgan wanted it made by hand.  I know it cost a good deal, because the bronze doors, with twisted bars, which he had made for the bookcases cost $550 a pair, and one of the panels of that fence would make three pairs of those doors."

Mowbray was also responsible for the decoration of the ceiling, inspired by that of the 16th century Church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome.  Among the decorations were constellations significant to Morgan--the signs of Aries (Morgan's birth sign) and Gemini (that of his wife, Frances Louisa), for instance.

Above the mantelpiece, designed in the Renaissance style, is the 16th century tapestry The Triumph of Avarice.  photograph by Pingthing
Leading off the library was J. P. Morgan's office, or "study."  It was here that he conducted much of his business away from his Wall Street office.  Unlike the library mantelpiece which was fabricated for that space, this one was a 15th century antique.  The leaded windows were brought from Switzerland and date from the 15th through 17th centuries.  Most impressive, perhaps, is the ceiling which was imported from Florence.

from the collection of the Library of Congress
photo via the Morgan Library & Museum
The Record & Guide was impressed, saying "the Library Building for J. Pierpont Morgan, Esq., in design and construction, marks an era in the Renaissance of classic work."  Alfred Hoyt Granger said "In this building restraint and discrimination are carried to the nth power." 

Morgan's concern about fire went well beyond the use of fireproof materials.  As the structure neared completion in June 1906 a reporter who stopped by the site was told:

The building is entirely fireproof.  The walls are about four feet thick.  There is a heavy wall of Tennessee marble, and then a space of fourteen inches between it and the interior brick wall.  Inside is a vault of 1-1/2 inch steel, in which to keep the most valuable of the old manuscripts, some of those Mr. Morgan picked up in monasteries, etc...There is a sliding shutter of asbestos to cover each window.  The shutters are hung on counterbalancing weights, so that one man could raise them all in a few moments.  They slide down into grooves in the wall.

Fire understandably continued to prey on the mind of Morgan.  His collection of artwork and manuscripts was irreplaceable.   Within a year of the library's completion, he announced he would be demolishing the Dodge mansion which, he felt, sat too close to the library behind.  The Record & Guide explained "Mr. Morgan evidently realizes the danger to these treasures that might arise from a burnable structure adjoining the museum.  His idea is to secure an open space all around it, by removing the Dodge mansion, which covers the middle of the block on the Madison av. side, and stands between the museum and the avenue."

Rarely did outsiders other than those meeting with Morgan in his study see inside the library.  But there were notable exceptions.  

President William Howard Taft was in town in February 1910.  Although Morgan was abroad, his personal attorney Lewis Cass Ledyard took Taft on a private tour of the library.  The President was partly prompted by the recently painted portrait of Morgan which hung in the study.  It was executed by Peruvian artist Carlos Baca-Flor and The Evening Telegram said "The artist has been recommended as the one to paint the official portrait of President Taft to be hung in the White House with the paintings of other Chief Executives."  Taft told reporters he was "pleased with the work."  He and Ledyard spent half an hour browsing the other artworks.

President Taft came to the Morgan library to inspect this portrait.  from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

A January 1912 Prince Arthur, the Duke of Connaught and Strathearn, arrived in New York with his wife, Princess Louise Margaret of Prussia, and their daughter, Princess Patricia.  The third son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, he and his family were fêted with the usual string of receptions, luncheons and dances.  

On January 23 The Evening World reported that on the previous day they "went to the home of J. P. Morgan and inspected the Morgan library and galleries."  The Morgan children where their hosts.  "They were met at the entrance by Mr. and Mrs. J. P. Morgan, Jr., Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Satterlee, Miss Ann Morgan and Mrs. Hamilton, another daughter of the financier, who escorted them through the Morgan private museum."

J. Pierpont Morgan, Sr. died on March 31, 1913.  At a time when funerals were routinely held in the drawing rooms of the deceased, Morgan's took place in the study he loved.  On April 13 The New York Times reported "In the red and gold west wing of the white marble Morgan library building...the body of J. Pierpont Morgan rested yesterday.  During the day members of the family and a few of the intimate friends of the dead financier visited the room where the body lies."

For a few years J. P. Morgan, Jr. continued to use his father's study.  On September 11, 1915, for instance, the New-York Tribune reported "In the library in Thirty-sixth Street where the late head of the house of Morgan made financial history and where but a year ago plans were made to prevent the United State being drained of its stock of gold, the first of a series of conferences between the leading bankers of Europe and the United States was held yesterday."

Then, in February 1924, Morgan presented the building and its collection to the public "in memory of his father," according to the Putnam County Republican.  The newspaper said "Both the library, which consists of 35,000 rare volumes and is known as perhaps the finest private collection of books and manuscripts in the world, and the Renaissance marble palace in which it is lodged...were conveyed outright by Mr. Morgan to a board of six trustees, of which he is president."

Henry Fairfield Osborn, president of the trustees of the American Museum of Natural History told the New York Evening Post "I consider it the most important gift in the world of literature ever made in the history of the City of New York, and it is destined to exert a very great influence on American literature."

photograph by Beyond My Ken
Of course, it was just the first step in the evolution of the private collection to "one of the world's foremost collections of manuscripts, rare books, music, drawings, and ancient and other works of art," as worded by the Library's website.  A succession of expansion projects take center stage on Madison Avenue; however the exquisite marble 1906 structure remains an architectural treasure.  As Alfred Hoyt Granger said in 1913, "There is no more beautiful monument to the memory of either Mr. Morgan or Mr. McKim than this library on Thirty-sixth street."


  1. From what I've read Stanford White had a hand in the construction of the building. Realizing the library was essentially a large toy for Morgan, White relayed it had alway been a dream of his to follow a building method of the ancient Greeks of having the stones cut and finished to such a degree no mortar would be required. Morgan asked how much? White replied $50,000. Morgan approved - Doubt if one in a million visitors realizes it would be difficult to insert a knife blade between the stones!

  2. Great post. I'll share the link with a bunch of book and fiction groups and blogs.

  3. A wonderful post on this architectural jewel box with abundant research on the historical connections to Italian structures and the important elements that make up the fabric of the interiors. Also great to see the rear facades of the 3 Madison Ave mansions.