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MeTube: Morgan Library’s Glorious Restoration, Before and After—Part I


[Part II is here.]

Almost three months before the Morgan Library and Museum reopened its newly restored and reinstalled McKim building—the former refuge of financier J.P. Morgan—William Griswold, the fifth director of this historic treasure trove (and its 2006 Renzo Piano-designed add-on) took me on a whirlwind tour to discuss the activity swirling around us.

Because I knew I’d be writing about the restoration for the Wall Street Journal, I was editor-barred from posting my videos of the work-in-progress at the time. But now that Morgan in a New Light has hit the stands (and the web), I can take you behind the scenes.

Today, we’ll wander with Griswold around the Library’s actual library—the vast room where some 14,000 richly bound books are arrayed on three tiers of shelves. Then I’ll throw in a mildly irreverent photo essay. There will be a second video and photo essay in a future post.

Here’s the museum director previously known as Griddle Griswold. I suggested to Bill that after this challenging project, he might earn the sobriquet, “Grizzled Griswold.” But he remains as ebulliently youthful in looks and demeanor as he was during his flapjack-flipping gig in Minneapolis:

Bill took me on a second tour, the day before the McKim building opened to the public, when a few last-minute finishing touches were in progress. He was a hands-on guide, twice whipping a cloth out of his pocket to remove smudges from vitrines, while simultaneously rattling off myriad details about the decor and displays.

Here’s the replacement carpet that Bill had mentioned during our videoed August conversation. It’s 19th-century Persian (Sultanabad), purchased from the Nazmiyal Collection, a New York gallery:


Bill asserts that its resembles Morgan’s original rug. But in this black-and-white historic photo, the lost original seems more intricate and subtle, less boldly patterned, than the carpet-come-lately:


Here’s what Bill has taken to calling the “Aladdin’s lamp”—the library’s recently unearthed and restored original fixture (seen in the historic photo, above) illuminating the entrance. Behind it, in the photo below, you can glimpse the 16th-century “Triumph of Avarice” tapestry by Pieter Coecke van Aelst (mentioned in my WSJ article):


Here are some reopening-day visitors, gazing up at the three-tiered bookcases, evenly illuminated for the first time.


The new glazing that protects the leather-bound volumes is so non-reflective that it nearly disappears:


Star objects now displayed in the library (to be rotated regularly) included Mozart‘s “Haffner Symphony”…


…and one of the Morgan’s three Gutenberg bibles:


The pent-up public demand after five months of closure meant that visitors had to line up in order to file into the Morgan’s historic rooms. But no one seemed to mind lingering in the opulent atrium:


What I minded (as I mentioned in my newspaper piece) was this dark walnut case smack in the middle of the atrium, disrupting its creamy curves with a dark, boxy modern display case:


Gazing directly above this discordant case, I also minded the glare of electric lights behind the glass of what had been a skylight:


Because the Morgan’s interior is landmarked (meaning that no electrical
outlet can be inserted in the floor), and because light-sensitive
historic documents are to be displayed in the middle of the
atrium, the skylight had to be repurposed as an electric light to
illuminate the case’s contents—currently the Morgan’s copy of the Declaration of

Climate-control concerns also mean that the Morgan Library’s original 36th Street entrance, leading directly into the atrium, cannot be reopened—an act that would have restored the original McKim building to due prominence. Here are those regrettably shuttered bronze doors:


Architect Renzo Piano’s 2006 addition has relocated the Morgan’s entrance off the side street and onto busy Madison Avenue, leading into his sleek glass-and-steel pavilion. Wait a minute! Who’s that I see at the entrance?

Architect Renzo Piano, arriving unannounced (but ready for his close-up), late in the afternoon of the Oct. 30 public reopening day of the restored 1906 McKim building

COMING SOON: Morgan’s study, his private vault, his librarian’s office and (let us not forget) the gift shop. MEANWHILE: If you want to see the Morgan’s fascinating two-minute, speeded-up video of the reinstallation of the library, go here.

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