J. P. Morgan took Beatrix Farrand’s advice on planting some of the grounds around his private library—a Neo-Renaissance palazzo designed by Charles Follen McKim, completed in 1906, now the historic core of the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City—but he and his successors allowed the front yard, on East 36th Street, to remain a banal patch of grass. The Classically inspired synthesis of architecture, sculpture, and painting that infused his “bookman’s paradise” did not extend to the landscape. Until today.
The new Morgan Garden, designed by London-based landscape architect and historian Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, is a modest yet sophisticated work that brings the interplay of the arts outside. It also allows visitors, for the first time in two decades, to get close to the main exterior elevation and entrance loggia of the McKim building. The area has been closed to visitors since the early 2000s, when the museum moved its entrance around the corner to Madison Avenue as part of a renovation and expansion designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop.
The austere, finely detailed façade of the McKim building has regained its original monolithic appearance after a six-year restoration effort led by the New York-based Integrated Conservation Resources and executive architect, the local firm Beyer Blinder Belle, which previously executed the museum’s 2006 addition designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop. They began by laser-scanning the exterior and finished by repairing the ears of the two stone lionesses that guard the entrance. In between, they replaced the roof, waterproofed the foundation, and restored historic stone, metal, and wood components.
ICR conservator Jennifer Schork, speaking at a reception at The Morgan on June 9, recounted a tale of McKim in Athens, Greece, inspecting the dry stonework at the Acropolis, elated to find the joints of the Erechtheion temple so tight that he could not slip his pen knife between its marble blocks. He wanted Morgan’s library to have similarly precise craftsmanship, and he succeeded in having the façades constructed with little to no mortar. In a concession to New York’s considerably wetter climate, however, McKim used 1-64-inch-thick lead flashing to prevent water infiltration between the dry-laid blocks of Tennessee pink limestone, a sedimentary stone often called “marble” because of its crystalline appearance.
The new Morgan Garden subtly transforms the museum for the better. It’s the first U.S. project by London-based landscape architect and historian Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, known for his work at Hampton Court and Kensington and Kew palaces. Compact in area and discreet in profile, the garden does not insult the integrity of the architecture, but rather extends the synthesis of architecture, sculpture, and painting to the realm of landscape. Bluestone paths cut in Renaissance-inspired motifs, reminiscent of the library’s flooring, connect the McKim building to Piano’s “cube” gallery and the museum’s annex.
Longstaffe-Gowan said his vision for the garden was “light, airy, not stuffy,” and inspired by Morgan’s fascination with European arts. Cobbled risseu pavements of smooth, rounded stones, placed by hand in contrasting dark and light patterns, as one finds in piazzas and gardens in Italy, are the garden’s most expressive feature. Stone artist Orazio Porto, a practitioner of this two-thousand-year-old art, gathered the stones from the shores of Sicily. Longstaffe-Gowan selected more than 40 plants, many of which, like Actaea racemose (snakeroot), Aruncus dioicus (goatsbeard), and several varieties of aster, produce small white or purple flowers from spring to fall. The garden also provides a setting for several antiquities including an elaborately carved Roman sarcophagus, which Longstaffe-Gowan placed on four spherical legs atop an illuminated bluestone plinth in the center of a grass lawn. Lighting design by Linnaea Tillett gives the ensemble a romantic allure after dark. Tillett opted not to illuminate McKim’s façade, but rather to make the library glow from within the loggia.
Convincing skeptics at the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission to approve the garden was not easy, Longstaffe-Gowan said. “Things are difficult in England, but—” he politely trailed off. At least Renzo Piano, Hon. FAIA, was “alright” with the new landscape works, he added. The garden will be open to visitors during select hours during the warmer half of the year.
To contextualize the recent construction, The Morgan has opened a new exhibition highlighting the library’s original designers and builders. Titled J. Pierpont Morgan’s Library: Building the Bookman’s Paradise, the exhibition includes not only a giant plaster maquette and original architectural drawings by the firm McKim, Mead & White, but also materials that pay homage to construction workers and artisans. Curator Christine Nelson brought to light a photo of masons cutting limestone for Morgan’s library at a workshop in the Bronx—they earned $5 a day—and an invoice from an upholsterer with a line item for on-site work “including woman sewing the velvet.”
The exhibition reminds you that books were the reason for all this fancy architecture. Nelson credits the contributions of Morgan’s librarian, Belle da Costa Greene, in building his private library and later the museum that bears his name. Nelson also gives visitors a glimpse of some of the priceless tomes. Near the end of the exhibition, my eyes popped when I realized I was looking at a 10th-century manuscript written in gold ink on purple-dyed parchment. And I sensed a vague kinship between the 16 scribes who once labored over this incomprehensibly exquisite object in a Benedictine abbey, and the people who recently oversaw The Morgan’s painstaking architectural restoration and new garden addition.