Extreme Makeover: Morgan Library Edition

mckim rotunda  5178 Extreme Makeover:  Morgan Library EditionBeneath a swatch of duct tape in the gleaming rotunda of the Morgan Library and Museum, there’s a patch of marble blackened by a century’s soot, grime and smoke from Havana cigars. It is a whole spectrum darker than the creamy marble around it, and until May it was the color of the whole room. The dirty patch will be left, and uncovered, to show visitors just how cruel time has been to the historic Madison Avenue building by famed architect Charles McKim. Jennifer Tonkovich, the curator overseeing its renovation, likes showing it off.

“I love it and it disgusts me at the same time,” she said. “It’s like a cleaning fantasy.”

‘The one thing we really did sacrifice in building all these new spaces was the intimacy of the old library,’ said a curator.

The Morgan Library has spent the summer, and $4.5 million, tidying up old man Pierpont’s library and office in an effort to return this petite American Renaissance gem to the grandeur of 1906. The new space opens next month, but a slate of big-name exhibitions that invoke, surprisingly, the 20th century and the museum’s own founder lead up to it. (The robber baron’s reputation has gotten some polishing up, too.) But will the restored Beaux-Arts mansion prove enough of a draw to offset the museum’s recent dip in attendance? “I certainly hope so,” said the curator, adding, “Our trustees certainly hope so.” The Morgan Library is something of a serial renovator. This is the fifth major renovation since the museum first acquired Morgan’s 37th Street townhouse in 1989. Most recently, in 2006, a $109 million Renzo Piano design united the museum’s separate buildings, adding a soaring, sun-drenched atrium. The resulting architectural ballyhoo spiked annual attendance to 223,000. Now, attendance has fallen back to around 150,000–little more than the museum drew in 2002.  

Produced by Amir Shoucri

The goal of the 20 years of on-again, off-again renovations and expansions has been to transform the Morgan from a jumble of separate buildings filled with jaw-dropping curios to a major New York cultural institution. But the results have been a series of functional spaces (a theater, vaults, a cafe) that have more in common with the whitewashed walls of MoMA than the cozy nooks that bookworms demand. “The one thing we really did sacrifice in building all these new spaces was the intimacy of the old library,” said Ms. Tonkovich.

“It’s a challenging campus,” noted Morgan director William Griswold, and this renovation, which opens to the public in late October, “will better integrate the Renzo Piano expansion with our present buildings.” He added: “My highest hope is that it will make the Morgan ever more visible, and that our visitors … will come to be more familiar with the nature and caliber of the Morgan’s collections.”

Part of the Morgan’s “problem” is that the permanent collection is spectacular, but not traditionally visual. The Morgan owns three Gutenberg bibles, Mozart and Chopin manuscripts, the sole surviving manuscript of Milton’s Paradise Lost, Dickens’ manuscript of A Christmas Carol, Thoreau’s journals and Jefferson’s letters to his daughter Martha, among many other treasures. The Morgan augments those holdings with more traditional art-museum exhibitions-shows of Edgar Degas’ sketchbooks (the library’s own) and Roy Lichtenstein’s black-and-white drawings (largely on loan) open Sept. 24-but its own collection is largely of the scholarly variety.  

Once finished, the gussied-up McKim will offer something that the Morgan’s rare books and manuscripts lack: eye candy. “I think there’s a place for minimalist elegance and I think there’s a place for opulence,” said the curator. “We don’t have to pick from three different shades of off-white for something. We can use color.” To see a Renzo Piano, one need only check out The New York Times‘ headquarters on Eighth Avenue. To enjoy a Charles McKim (or a McKim, Mead & White building, to use the full name of the architecture firm that was a superstar at the turn of the century) requires membership at the University or Metropolitan Clubs, or a room at the soon-to-be-razed Hotel Pennsylvania. “As more and more of old New York disappears,” she said, “I think we cling more tightly to places that are still left.”

Just as they are revitalizing Mr. Morgan’s library, the curators are making more of an effort to tell the financier’s story. Morgan was a late 19th-century merger king who created both General Electric and U.S. Steel, and had something of a monopoly on the nation’s railroads. Although he is generally lumped in with the robber barons, the museum’s new audio guide paints a sympathetic picture of Morgan the art nut: a founder of the American Museum of Natural History, and with a collection that provided the foundation for the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Frick Collection. Without Morgan, said Ms. Tonkovich, “New York would have been a very different town, and the museums would be much poorer.”

Two shows opening this month will touch on Morgan’s life. One, a showcase of Mark Twain artifacts, opening Sept. 17, includes a Pudd’nhead Wilson manuscript that Twain sold to Morgan, a fan himself. The other, “Anne Morgan’s War,” showcases Morgan’s daughter and her relief efforts in France after World War I. As a collection of photography, letters and early silent film, it is a compelling depiction of Europe ravaged by war, but more than that, it is a celebration, and celebritization, of the name on the front door.  

As for the McKim, even more than a month before completion, the improvement is vast. Before, the marble was dirty, the carpets tatty and the chandeliers unfortunate. Bad lighting meant there were no display cases, and without anything to look at, one left the bite-size villa almost before entering it. Visitors, even those anxious for a glimpse of the Gilded Age, tended to wander in and out without being sure what they had just seen. The architect Samuel White, great-grandson of McKim’s partner Stanford White–who was publicly murdered the year the Morgan was finished–compared the East Room’s “greenish light” to a morgue.

“I’m really expecting big things out of this,” he said. “[The McKim] is like the aria in a Wagnerian opera. You practically want to kill yourself, it’s so beautiful in every respect.”

The lighting has been softened, the rugs replaced, the reflective plexiglass in the bookshelves traded for one that can actually be seen through. The fireplace and medieval tapestry in the East Room–the library–will be lit, saving them from becoming what Ms. Tonkovich called “a black hole.” For the first time, visitors will be able to poke around the North Room–which was the museum director’s office until the 1980s-and in the massive vault in Morgan’s office. Mr. White called the improvements “astonishing.”

Best of all, the revamped McKim will be a home for the permanent collection, allowing for a rotating display of objects like a love letter from a 15-year-old Queen Elizabeth I: fragile gems that are easily swallowed by a spacious gallery.

The collection is, in part, about “the history of the human imagination, and the intimacy of those works is part of their appeal,” said Mr. Griswold. “It’s incumbent on us to present those materials in a very exciting way.”