- The Morgan Library and Museum in New York City houses the art collection of famed financier JP Morgan.
- The banking firm he founded, now called JPMorgan Chase & Co., became the largest bank in the US.
- In the last two decades of his life, Morgan spent $US900 million (in today’s dollars) on art.
- His library includes some unexpected secrets, like hidden staircases, fake bookcases, and a steel vault.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more.
From the outside, the Morgan Library and Museum doesn’t look like a space that would house three Gutenberg Bibles, letters from George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and a manuscript from Mozart.
The museum complex, which spans half a city block in midtown Manhattan, was originally a series of private residences owned by John Pierpont “JP” Morgan, the legendary financier credited with rescuing America from a financial crisis in the 1900s.
Morgan founded the banking firm now called JPMorgan Chase & Co. in 1871. Today, it’s the largest bank in the US.
The complex’s multiple structures have since been sewn together and opened to visitors. A café and gift shop are located inside a brownstone that once belonged to Morgan’s son, and Morgan’s own private rooms – a study, librarian’s office, and main library – are found in the museum’s central building. An annex where Morgan’s personal residence once stood now holds galleries.
Morgan dedicated the last two decades of his life to searching for rare, expensive finds to add to his vast art collection. He spent $US900 million (in today’s dollars) on art and rare artifacts, some of which are still housed in his private rooms.
Business Insider toured these rooms as part of Open House New York, a weekend-long event that grants entry to closed-off sites throughout the city. Among the more fascinating elements of the complex were a hidden staircase, fake bookcases, and a secret vault. Take a look.
The Morgan Library and Museum is located a few blocks from the Empire State Building in midtown Manhattan.
It’s open to visitors Tuesday through Sunday, though our tour offered a rare glimpse of the facility before visitors arrived.
A grand rotunda marks the entrance to JP Morgan’s private rooms. The blue-and-white apse depicts classical figures inspired by the work of Italian painter Raphael.
Paintings on the ceiling show three literary epochs that appear in Morgan’s collection: the ancient world, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance.
The standout artefact in this room is a plaster cast of George Washington’s face created by a French sculptor. It’s our best understanding of what Washington actually looked like.
The mask was made in 1785, four years before Washington became president.
Washington had to lie down and get grease lathered on his face before the sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon applied the plaster. To help Washington breathe, Houdon gave him straws to put in his nose. Morgan likely purchased the mask on a trip to Rome.
The librarian’s office, located off the rotunda, contains a collection of Mesopotamian seals that’s considered one of the best in the world.
The office belonged to Morgan’s personal librarian, Belle da Costa Greene. Her father was the first black graduate of Harvard.
Greene helped buy and sell millions of dollars’ worth of art on Morgan’s behalf. After Morgan died, she was appointed the director of his library in 1924.
Greene pretended to have a Portuguese ancestry and passed as white for most of her adulthood. In author Heidi Ardizzone’s biography of Greene, she says the librarian was “arguably the most powerful woman in the New York art and book world” in her day.
The only known sculpted portrait of Greene (above) sits in the main library, where most of Morgan’s rare books are kept.
The office has a trick bookcase that swivels aside to reveal a staircase.
The room has two tiers of bookcases, so the hidden staircase allows museum staffers to access the top balcony.
The staircase is hidden behind a door in the entrance to the librarian’s office.
Two more secret staircases – also hidden behind bookcases – can be found in the corners of the complex’s main library.
The librarian’s office, though grand, pales in comparison to the main library. The room is filled with one-of-a-kind artifacts.
The walls are lined with three tiers of walnut shelves that hold rare printed books.
In the centre is a tapestry meant to depict one of the seven deadly sins: avarice.
Morgan was often accused of being greedy, but our guide explained that the banker thought that staring at an artistic representation of greed would encourage him to be more generous.
The library holds three Gutenberg bibles — the largest number in any single collection.
The bibles represent some of the earliest printed texts in the world. The one on display was printed in 1455, but it’s surprisingly well preserved.
Another rare treasure is the Lindau Gospels, which contains the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John from the Bible. It was the first medieval manuscript that Morgan bought.
In 1901, the asking price for the bejeweled manuscript was reportedly around $US387,00 in today’s dollars – but that was no obstacle for Morgan. He’s known to have coined the phrase, “If you have to ask how much it costs, you can’t afford it.”
Morgan kept his favourite works of art in his personal study. He also used the room for meetings with friends, art dealers, and colleagues.
In 1907, the major banks in New York City were teetering on bankruptcy. So Morgan called a group of bankers to his study, where they devised a plan to save the nation from economic ruin.
The situation had echoes of the modern financial crisis – just as the US government bailed out banks in 2008, Morgan decided to bail out a brokerage firm, Moore and Schley.
Morgan liked smoking cigars so much that he damaged his study walls, so the silk had to be replaced.
The silk bears the coat of arms of an Italian royal family. On the far wall across from the entrance is the first globe that depicted North America. Morgan purchased the item in 1912, a year before his death.
From the study, a thick door opens onto a steel vault. It was once hidden by a velvet curtain.
The vault once held Morgan’s manuscript collection. It opened to the public in 2010 and today houses an a modern Hebrew text with an LED light sculpture on the front cover.
Morgan used to have a portrait of his father hanging above the mantle opposite his desk. But that painting has been replaced with a self-portrait of Morgan made to hide his biggest insecurity: his red nose.
Morgan had rosacea, which left ruptured blood vessels and pockmarks on his nose. So his portraits were touched up to hide that.
In his biography of Morgan, author Ron Chernow calls Morgan’s nose “Wall Street’s most talked-about protuberance.”
“Many people would notice a link between the nose and Pierpont’s fiery temper,” Chernow wrote. “The nose must have been a terrible handicap for a shy, self-conscious man with a tremendous need for female admiration.”
The entrance to library features an airy public atrium. Tall glass windows let you peer out at neighbouring buildings in Manhattan.
In 1998, the museum staff realised that their collection had gotten too big for the space. So they partnered with architect Renzo Piano to build new galleries, add a performance hall, and renovate the museum’s entrance. The finish product was unveiled in 2006.
The re-design added around 75,000 square feet to the campus. The new spaces allow in lots of natural light — especially in the reading room, where scholars can study the old manuscripts.
The café and gift shop were updated in 2010. Renovations to the complex’s landscape are set to finish within about a year.
In addition to rare books and artifacts, the complex is filled with personal mementos from Morgan’s life. This bell came from one of his yachts.
The bell sits at the museum’s entrance.
Morgan began to withdraw from the finance world when the library was finished in 1906. He died seven years later.
His collection has expanded since his death, so it’s likely worth more than the $US900 million he paid more than a century ago.
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