The restored Morgan Library garden


Freshly washed and manicured.
Photo: Brett Beyer, courtesy of Morgan Library & Museum, New York

Italy, France, and Britain went to war on American soil during the Gilded Age, fielding not armies or artillery, but architectural styles. The prize was the allegiance of a handful of plutocrats. William Randolph Hearst adorned his medieval triplex at the Clarendon on Riverside Drive and West 86th Street with a fireplace acquired from a Welsh castle. William Vanderbilt erected a french castle on Fifth Avenue. And JP Morgan hired architect Charles Follen McKim to house its books in an Italianate palace that was ostentatious in its sobriety. Morgan’s library faced East 36th Street with no turrets, attics, bays, or gargoyles—just an austere wall of shell-colored Tennessee marble, with a pair of niches, two columns, and a single arch above the porch. Everyone could see that the building was expensive and fancy, but to fully experience the dazzling experience, you had to be admitted. Like a leather-bound volume, the cover hinted at the imaginary wealth it concealed.

For decades, this quiet exterior has aged into a mute stain. The stone darkened under layers of soot and pigeon shit. The sculpted bronze door panels have all but disappeared behind a mud patina. And once Renzo Piano moved the complex’s main entrance to Madison Avenue in 2006, the library’s facade, staircase and portal, all preceded by a nondescript strip of greenery, disappeared from public consciousness.

Well, it’s back: a masterpiece of spectacular stealth restored to its original sharpness. Integrated Conservation Resources and architectural firm Beyer Blinder Belle led an extensive team of conservators with an assortment of sub-sub-specialties and fine motor skills that would make a surgeon or piano player proud. They removed the mortar that had been driven into the cracks, removed the grime with cotton swabs and repaired the wounds of the stone lionesses. The bronze doors – which the Italian supplier Stefano Bardini sold to Morgan as products of 15th-century Florence but which the American sculptor Thomas Waldo Story actually finished making even as the library went up — have regained a soft luster. After dark, new lighting gives the landforms a muted glamour.

Photo: Brett Beyer, courtesy of Morgan Library & Museum, New York

In the tradition of all that faded magnificence, London designer Todd Longstaffe-Gowan (whose credits include the Kensington Palace Gardens) laid out a new strip of landscape that passers-by can register as a jolt of mysterious delight. There are no riots of color in the English style, no topiaries or elaborate hedges. Instead, clusters of pale pink and white flowers shoot out of hexagonal openings in a bed of pebbles.

The manufacturing borders on the fanatic. Orazio Porto, a Sicilian craftsman who laying walkways by hand using a technique inherited from ancient Rome, arrived with a load of stones polished by the Mediterranean and volcanic sand of Etna, then embedded them in the pavement. The result is an abstract mosaic that mixes the natural with the geometric. Two sculpted wellheads and a sarcophagus watch over the new garden, along with a few excavated artifacts in a storage shed.

To celebrate the makeover, the Morgan’s curator, Jennifer Tonkovich, hosted “J. Pierpont Morgan’s Library: Building the Bookman’s Paradise,” a show that chronicles the assembly of this temple of books. Morgan initially hired architect Whitney Warren but rejected his Frenchified Beaux-Arts design and gave the job to McKim. (Warren and his partner, Charles Wetmore, ended up designing Grand Central Terminal instead.) You can see the design of the exterior distill and simplify with each iteration, even as the interior became more and more inlaid with ceiling frescoes, portraits, fireplaces, marble polychromy, floor-to-ceiling shelving and acres of blood-red silk. Here and there the contents explain the box: the crest above the door, a long-tailed dolphin winding around an anchor, does not represent the House of Morgan but the 15th-century printer’s Aldine Press Aldo Manuzio. JP was lord of the manor, but in his palace, the book was king.


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