Brett Beyer, courtesy of the Morgan Library & Museum
Green space has always been a strong mental imperative. And in New York, a piece of grass – even peat, admittedly – is a godsend. Life in this concrete metropolis invites you to mean picnics, Gardens on the windowsill, and sunbathing in Central Park. But of course there are those sparse gardening oases that sometimes keep us from tearing our hair out. That the Morgan library The newly renovated garden is one of them.
The library has unveiled a six-year, $13 million renovation that included a new roof and meticulous facade restoration, the first restoration the landmark has seen in more than a century. Its crown jewel, however, is a 5,000-square-foot garden, the work of the London-based company Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, the architect behind the gardens of Kensington Palace and the landscape of Hampton Court. “We had on hand the remarkable resources and collections of the Morgan Library, as well as manuscripts and all the motifs in the building that are so remarkably rich,” says Longstaffe-Gowan. “We mined everything pretty extensively, and the ones we used to inform the design.”
Constructed between 1902 and 1906, the building was originally the private library of John Pierpont Morgan – the American financier who dominated corporate finance on Wall Street during the Golden Age and was, fittingly, an avid collector. When Morgan died in 1913, he left a personal collection of manuscripts, printed books, prints, drawings, and ancient artifacts – a treasure trove valued at over $900 million. In the ensuing century, the library and accompanying mid-19th-century brownstone and annex were transformed into a world-class museum thanks to an expansion by the Pritzker Prize-winning architect Renzo piano a decade ago. But the library building itself had been neglected, the shell-colored Tennessee limestone smoky from pollution, and the front lawn an unkempt lot.
Today, detailed cast-iron gates open onto an airy green loggia on Madison Avenue at East 36th Street. Blushing white geraniums flank bluestone walkways and are patterned cobblestones from the Ionian Sea – an extension of the library’s Renaissance-inspired ornamentation. A lawn stretches out in front of the modern pavilion designed by Piano. “The plants we used were intentionally low to respect the integrity of the building,” says Longstaffe-Gowan. “The intention was to make it light and airy.”
The landscape architect also used classical sculptures from the museum’s collection: a Roman tomb slab or stele, a pair of Renaissance corbels, and a Roman stone coffin in the courtyard. Longstaffe-Gowan’s classically informed historical sensibility is evident throughout Morgan’s garden: the stately linearity of its pathways, the raw Mediterranean materials and lush living flora contrast with ancient stone structures. The sum of these old-world elements is equal parts grandeur and restraint, an effect that is enhanced at night when a designer-led outdoor lighting scheme is created Linnaea Tillett will bathe the building in a moonlight effect.
The Morgan Library will unveil the completed restoration through a series of Community events free to the publicafter that, the garden will remain open to ticket holders until October 9th. The celebration is to coincide with an exhibition: “J. Pierpont Morgan Library: Building the Bookmen’s Paradise,‘, which chronicles the history of the library and includes historical photographs, architectural drawings and manuscripts from Morgan’s collection.
“The new garden is a touch of Rome in midtown Manhattan,” says Longstaffe-Gowan. “It is hoped that his presence will encourage passers-by unfamiliar with the library and museum to explore their outstanding collections.”
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