The Architectural History of the Morgan Library


Housing one of the most magnificent collections of pieces of art, including music, art, and literature, the Morgan Library and Museum, is a great treasure. It began in the 1890s as a private collection of JP Morgan. John Pierpont Morgan was an American banker and finance expert, an influential name in the American economic scene. He had a keen insight into art. At the time of his death, in 1913, he was known to have a fortune of $118 million, of which $50 Million was dedicated to his enormous art collection.

Morgan’s earliest library held collections of drawings and leather-bound traditional manuscripts. After his father’s death in 1890, he acquired his father’s estate and hence resources to honor the collections he had accumulated over time.

Morgan’s Collections

Morgan amassed mostly encyclopedic literature. His collections later, however, became representations of the Western civilization from ancient to modern times. His artistic insight also laid hands on all kinds of objects of arts, including drawings, tapestries, ivories, paintings, rare books, autographs, and even Egyptian artifacts. “No price is too high for an object of unquestioned beauty and known authenticity,” he once said.

The Beginnings of the Morgan Library

The Beginnings of the Morgan Library

Morgan formed a locked treasure room in the basement of his residence in Madison Avenue in New York City. He realized that a small house could not justify the glory of the collectibles. He employed the architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White to construct a library and museum adjacent to his home in New York.  Morgan knew that his collections deserved a wondrous home. He clearly instructed his architects, “I want a gem!”

Architectural History of the Library

The building constructed in 1903 was built in the classical revival style, as designed by Charles McKim. It was constructed using Tennessee marble known for its pinkish-white color from 1902 to 1907. It has the entrance designed on the Palladian architectural style, parading the sculptures of two lionesses at the entrance designed by Edward Clarke Potter.

Today, the Morgan Library and Museum is a complex of buildings designed and built over time, showcasing a true amalgam of architecture and construction of various kinds. Additions were made and annexes added in 1928, 1988, and finally, in 1991, a garden court was added to compound the three buildings into a complex. A big unveiling of the expansion was conducted a century after the construction of the original structure.

McKim, who was considered an expert of the American Renaissance architectural style, was the architect for this glorious monument. He has graced New York with many a structure of significance, including Brooklyn Museum, Pennsylvania Station, IRT Powerhouse, and more, but the Morgan Library is considered his masterpiece. As the library was envisioned by its owner to host the combination of all kinds of art, McKim accordingly ensured the architecture to be an amalgam of sculpture, design, and extraordinary art.

Originally, McKim poured immense dedication into the design. The façade is a relatively simple rectangular structure, surrounded by Doric pillars. The Doric order brings together the Roman and Greek style of building. The Doric type of columns support the building, also achieving the delicacy of art. On the entrance, however, are placed, not Doric, but Ionic columns that surround the entrance on either side. The Ionic columns, more slender than the Doric ones, justify the purpose of giving the entrance a finer look.

The decoration of the exterior was a joint effort of many designers. Andrew O’Connor took on the task of establishing an angel borne directory panel on the cornice – and lunette, just above the bronze door of the building, supporting the logo of Aldus Manutius. Edward Clarke Potter placed two lion figures on the entrance that seem to be guarding the entrance into the world of such rare art and literature.

The Interior

The interior of the building has a vaulted ceiling, a dome-shaped structure that leads to three entrances, one on each side; North, West, and East. The largest of these is Morgan’s private library that is towards the West. The simple structure of the interior made it possible to integrate it with beautiful colors and design. Variegated marble, mosaics, and columns grace the interior. The floor contains in the center, an area of porphyry that comes from the Villa Pia of the Vatican.

The ceilings and lunettes of the rotunda owe their design to Harry Siddons, who relied heavily on the Renaissance styles of architecture.

Inspired by Raphael’s artistry at Villa Madama, Rome, effectuated in 1516 for Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici, the blue and white stucco ceilings of the Rotunda’s apse are archetypal of classic Renaissance architecture. Maintaining the renaissance style of using Greek and Roman mythology influence in their works, H. Siddons Mowbray embellished the ceiling with famous Greek and Roman characters including Wheat, Flowers, the goddess Ceres, the Vine, and Fruit on hexagonal reliefs. 

The larger hexagons depict some more prominent deities; Venus and Cupid, Mercury and Proserpina, Diana and the Huntress, Cupid and Psyche, and Silenus with the young Bacchus. These reliefs were modeled by Mowbray on the spot, thereby making sure the light from the Oculus shines flawlessly at the figurines.

Decorated on the lines of the vault of the Stanza Della Segnatura in the Vatican – the paintings represent in the form of female figures – the four branches of learning that are Philosophy, Religion, Science and Art.

The Library

The Library

The library, on the western side of the rotunda is the largest room. The ceiling has a height of 30 feet. The bookcases cover the entire height of the room, crafted from bronze and Circassian walnut wood. If one wants to witness the balconies, he/she may find the staircases skillfully concealed behind the bookshelves. The stained-glass windows adorn the walls, lighting the grand room.

Even the roof of the library does not fail to turn the building into a piece of art in its entirety. Based on the Seven Deadly Sins, and containing the inscription from Latin that states,

“As Tantalus is ever thirsty in the midst of the water, so is the miser always desirous of riches.”

On the ceiling, a series of figures, commemorating greats of every field of human knowledge, are used. The ceiling shows Muses from Galileo, Christopher Columbus, and other glorious figures from history – from left to right. Above that, we can see the signs of the zodiac and the deities and goddesses who guard them. Upon glancing at the ceiling, we can find our zodiac and its representative pieces of art in a clockwise direction starting from Aquarius.

The antique style wooden ceiling of the Study reflects the personal choice and taste of Mr. Morgan. The study was used by him to conduct meetings with business associates and dealers. The walls have a royal touch covered in red velvet, the mantelpiece and fireplace find their origin in other ancient classes of design. Having an association with England, Morgan ensured that the desk and the settee were designed in the classy British style. It is the study that Morgan graced with his personal collections of paintings and sculptures. The paintings are mostly obtained from Italian artists, belonging to ancient times and modern ones.

The North Room was remade during renovation into a gallery to display more of the personal collections of JP Morgan. Also displayed are Morgan’s collections of souvenirs, such as ancient seals and tablets of various cultures, and personal objects of people of the remote past. On one corner are displayed tablets containing ancient text narrating a great flood from the past.

The entire building with each of the articles it contains makes it a glorious collection of art, journeying from the past to date. The building underwent various renovations as time passed. The year 1928 saw the addition of the Annex. The annex doubled the size of the compound. Moreover, it was ensured that the Annex did not betray the architectural sense of the main structure, so Henry Siddons, who had provided the ceiling adornment for the library, was called to showcase his talent once again.

During the following years, new rooms were added as per the requirements of the day. The print room was added atop the annex without altering the basic design of the structure.

In 1988, the Morgan House, situated on the west of this structure, was made part of it. In 1991, a garden court was made enclosing and making the three-building a single complex of buildings. A drawing study center was initiated in 1999 to provide teaching to aspiring artists. Thaw Conservation Center was opened in 2002 to preserve works on paper, parchment, and ancient texts, including rare books and manuscripts of ancient languages and precious writings of music.

Modern times and provision of better facilities required expansion and redesign. In 2000, the Renzo Piano Building Workshop was begun to envision the plan and architecture for expansion. The plan integrated the older and new versions to run in smooth harmony, in order to ensure the preservation of the original and addition of the modern structures.

The final structure of the Morgan Library and Museum is now is the interplay of the old and new. The structure contains the three original buildings and the further addition of four galleries – the Engelhard Gallery, Morgan Stanley Gallery East, Morgan Stanley Gallery West, and the Clare Eddy Thaw Gallery, which effectively preserves all works of art acquired by the library. The Morgan cafe and the Morgan dining room also facilitate visitors now.


From 1906 till today, the Morgan Library and Museum, formerly the Pierpont Morgan Library, saw various periods of reconstruction and came out through hard and easy times. Yet, the original vision and design of the building were preserved throughout. The Morgan Library and Museum, being one of the Top 10 Libraries In New York City, is one of its kind in possessing ancient pieces of art and seeing over their preservation through all times.

If you ever get the time and chance to visit this piece of art, don’t miss it!

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