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Morgan Library Spreads Its Wings : Recent expansion has created new interest in banker's impressive collection of rare books.

March 08, 1992|JULIE M. FENSTER

NEW YORK — When J. P. Morgan died in 1913, he left a fortune of $68 million. "And to think," John D. Rockefeller remarked, "I always thought he was rich."

The nation's greatest banker was evidently better at spending money than at saving it, and his ultimate legacy was a collection representing 12 centuries of European art. Morgan's paintings and objets d'art were divided between New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn.

Only the books and manuscripts stayed home, in J. Pierpont Morgan's own private library, which had been built in 1906 next door to his mansion on Madison Avenue in Manhattan. Four years after opening to the public in 1924, the library expanded over the site of J. P.'s mansion, at the corner of Madison and 36th Street. Last fall, the library finally settled the block and its own future when it expanded all the way to the 1852 mansion on the next corner--Madison and 37th--a home that once belonged to J. P. Morgan Jr.

"A lot more active in here than it used to be, huh?" a librarian said to a guard right after the grand reopening Oct. 1. And that is just the case: A new drive seems to have embraced the genteel old library. Scholars, tourists and East Side neighbors have been stopping by in a steady stream "just to see what all the excitement is about," as one dapper man told the receptionist .

The excitement bubbles up from the library's holdings as much as its new spaces. With another half-block, it now has the luxury of maintaining a permanent display of selections from the collection.

In the area of rare books and original manuscripts, the only American institution comparable to the Morgan is the Huntington Library in San Marino. J. P. Morgan and Henry Huntington were competitors in acquiring the world's treasured books--and as competitors, they held influence over each other in both little ways and big. Morgan built a private library; Huntington saw it: Huntington built a private library.

And while Huntington obtained one of the 48 known Gutenberg Bibles, J. P. Morgan bought three. Produced in about 1455 on the first press to use movable type, the Gutenberg Bible on display at the Morgan features print that is blindingly neat, even and straight. In their day, Gutenberg's Bibles represented the outer edge of technology, mitigated only by the hand-drawn decorations in the margins: homey beauty calling out to the machine-made perfection around it.

Before Gutenberg's Bibles , the finest books were printed and decorated by hand, page by page. The Morgan houses several hundred such works, known as "illuminated manuscripts." Many are religious in subject, but not all: One on view recently depicted a medieval burglary.

The collection of author's manuscripts covers final drafts from John Milton's "Paradise Lost" (1665)--which he dictated, having lost his sight--through the typescript for 1991 Nobel Prize winner Nadine Gordimer's "Something out There." In Jane Austen's neat hand in the manuscript of "Lady Susan" (1805) or Honore de Balzac's maniacal corrections to just about every word of "Eugenie Grandet" (1833), an author is closely observed in these working copies.

So are composers. The Morgan Library has examples of Mozart's hurried handwriting on the musical scoring for a 1786 rondo; Chopin's tiny notations on an 1842 work, and Bach's deliberate, dark blots for a cantata composed in 1731, among many other musical documents.

Earlier this year, the library staged a major exhibition of children's books, and its own holdings in this genre are charming. Included is a copy of the first children's book ever published, "Les Contenances de la Table," a book of manners for good little French girls and boys of 1487.

The Morgan will continue to feature pieces from its own collections of books, manuscripts and drawings, in addition to exhibitions coordinated with other institutions. The major shows this year will celebrate 17th-Century Dutch drawings (through April 22); British landscape drawing, 1750-1850 (May 5 to Aug. 2), and Fra Bartolommeo (Sept. 11 to Nov. 29).

Even without the treasures of art and thought, emptied of books and sketches, the Morgan Library stands out. The original private library building is an axis, around which New York City has turned, writhed, surged and changed for 85 years.

When J. P. Morgan first moved into the neighborhood in 1865, Madison Avenue stopped at 40th Street, with farms beyond. When he decided to build his private library in 1900 in the side lot on 36th Street, he retained the services of the city's leading architect, Charles McKim. Now a landmark, the library is heavy in white marble and low among the skyscrapers that have replaced the farms.

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