J.P. Morgan Library and Museum-New York City

While my recent trip to New York City was a major disappointment on numerous fronts, I did succeed in visiting two libraries and thus held true to the principles of my library quest which you can read about here

Summary: I first learned about the infamous robber baron J.P. Morgan through the Broadway musical Ragtime which is based on the 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow. It tells the story of three groups in the United States in the early 20th century (African-Americans, upper-class whites and Eastern European immigrants). Along with the fictitious main characters, historical figures such as Harry Houdini, Booker T. Washington and J.P. Morgan are also represented in the stories. I discovered how Morgan was one of the richest men in the United States and how like many of his peers, he amassed his vast fortune unscrupulously in ways that would be illegal under today’s rules and regulations. The Morgan Library and Museum is a museum and research library in New York City that was founded to house the private library of Morgan in 1906. In addition to manuscripts and printed books the collection also included prints, paintings, and other rare and prized artifacts. The library cost $1.2 million to build (this is an unbelievably large amount of money today and even more so more over a century ago) and was built adjacent to Morgan’s house in the city’s midtown-east neighborhood. Although his house was torn down in 1928, today the library is a series of buildings which serves as a museum and scholarly research center.

Pros to visiting: If you’re an ardent bibliophile, you will be amazed by the sheer scope of the collection, a library whose origins were a result of one man’s desire to amass one of the world’s most renowned private collections of books and other rare materials.The East Room, which was the site of the original library, features three story inlaid walnut bookshelves complete with two staircases that are concealed behind bookcases that provide access to the balconies. I would think smaller children would have fun in terms of trying to figure out which bookcase actually held the secret staircase. Some of the rare materials include a Bible printed by Johannes Gutenberg (Morgan actually owned three Gutenberg Bibles), letters written by Charles Dickens and one from Napoleon to his first wife Josephine congratulating her on her “bogus” pregnancy. The West Room, which served as Morgan’s study, was also a place he spent most of his time in his later years. It showcases his penchant for the Renaissance period featuring an extensive array of Italian and Netherlander paintings and other stunning objects. Although the decor of the room was a bit much for my 21st century tastes (it’s adorned in red silk wall covering), I could still see the inside being an oasis of peace from the outside. The North Room, which once served as the librarian’s office, is today a gallery devoted to the earliest works of art from the Morgan collection including Near Eastern seals and tablets and Egyptian, Greek, and Roman sculpture. Lastly, from an architectural standpoint, the Morgan Library and Museum is definitely worth a visit. In 1903 Morgan had commissioned a famous firm (McKim, Mead & White) to “design a library to house his growing collection of rare books and manuscripts” and he got a lot more than just a library; he got an architectural wonder. It was designed in a classical style based upon villas of the Italian Renaissance. During Morgan’s day visitors to the library passed through a pair of monumental bronze doors into a rotunda that was decked out in the most opulent of detail-marble columns and mosaic panels for starters. The ceiling paintings by American artist H. Siddons Mowbray depict three of the major literary epochs represented by Morgan’s collection-the ancient world, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Although I’ve yet to visit the Library of Congress in Washington D.C., the pictures I’ve seen of it greatly reminded me of the Morgan Rotunda. It’s incredible to think that while the Library of Congress is for the public, the Morgan Library was originally built to fulfill the pursuits of one man. Currently on exhibition there was the collection of art work, photographs and other materials devoted to the charming world of Beatrix Potter and her whimsical world of animal friends including Peter Rabbit, Tom Kitten and Benjamin Bunny. My grandmother has a collection of porcelain Peter Rabbit and other figurines and so this was a real delight to see. While the materials in the Morgan Library might be of little interest, stuffed animals from the turn of the last century as well as childlike illustrations and prints would undoubtedly delight children.

Cons to visiting: The cost for admission is extremely high considering the small size of the museum (i.e. it’s not anywhere near to the size or scope of the Metropolitan Museum of Art for instance). Adult tickets are $15 and $10 for anyone over the age of 65, under the age of 16 or any student with a current ID. Due to its high admission costs, it’s not a place I would take children unless they were under the age of 12 and came with an adult and would get in for free. It’s also an attraction I think would bore most small children.

Note: Admission is free from 7-9 PM on Friday evenings. 

Conclusion: Am I glad I visited? Yes. Was I slightly disappointed? Yes. I know that not every attraction is going to have me fall in love with it. With its midtown Manhattan location right on Madison Avenue it’s certainly convenient to get to and if you’re into books, history and architecture, it certainly fits the bill for an excursion, high ticket costs and all.

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  • Reply
    JoAnn M.
    December 3, 2012 at 5:59 pm

    Great post! Since I am a lover of “books, history and architecture”, The Pierpont Morgan Library would be of great interest to me!

    Although people like Morgan, Carnegie, Rockefeller & Vanderbilt were ruthless narcissistic “robber barons” we are still able to enjoy their “contributions” to our culture.

  • Reply
    the red headed traveler
    December 3, 2012 at 10:11 pm

    If you can “stomach” the somewhat overpriced admission cost for how small a space it is, it really is a fascinating place overall though.

    You are indeed correct in the fact that those men’s contributions to areas of learning and the arts are forever lasting.

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