A Plan Unfolds for a $75 Million Morgan Makeover
By DAVID W. DUNLAP
The Pierpont Morgan Library, an exquisite cultural treasure chest in Murray Hill, would reorient, expand and draw together its campus of historic buildings with three unmistakably modern steel-and-glass pavilions designed by Renzo Piano. The project is so ambitious it would require the Morgan to close for two years.
Under a plan presented yesterday to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the Morgan would
move its entrance from 36th Street to Madison Avenue, create a glass-enclosed piazza in the middle of
the block, expand its gallery space, build a new auditorium and reading room, replace its office wing,
sink a new vault deep into bedrock and add a cubic structure in the yard between J. Pierpont Morgan's
original library and the later annex, both landmarks.
"Since I became director of the Morgan in 1987, my chief goal has been to provide greater public
access to both the buildings and the collections," Charles E. Pierce Jr. told the commission. He said Mr.
Piano's plan achieved the goal with "remarkable subtlety and sensibility."
The hearing adjourned without a vote by the commission on whether the expansion would be
appropriate. The commission will take up the matter again next month. It is also expected to restore
landmark status to the former J. P. Morgan Jr. house at Madison Avenue and 37th Street, which the
library acquired in 1988. The Lutheran Church in America once had its headquarters there and fought
successfully to revoke the landmark designation in 1974.
The Morgan's expansion project is to begin in 2003 and may cost up to $75 million. ("We've just
started to do serious fund-raising," Mr. Pierce said.) During the two years of construction, the library's
collection of 350,000 objects — rare books, illuminated manuscripts, prints and drawings — will be
The architects are the Renzo Piano Building Workshop of Paris and Genoa and Beyer Blinder Belle of
Mr. Piano likened his work to microsurgery. "The spirit of the scheme is not really to grow," he said.
"It's more about rebalancing, rethinking the institution."
Of the 69,400 square feet of new space, 43,300 will be underground, in an auditorium seating about
280 people and a vault hewn from bedrock. "There is no better place to preserve books forever than
Manhattan schist," Mr. Piano told the commission.
With most of the space underground, the pavilions can be held to the same scale as the older structures
The new entrance, set back from the avenue, would replace a swoop- roofed, glass-enclosed
courtyard from 1991 by Voorsanger & Mills. Over the entrance would be a windowless facade of
recessed steel panels in a large-scale grid, behind which would be a reading room and gallery.
"Symbolically, what this building is about, above everything else, is the protection of art," Mr. Piano
said, explaining the decision to use steel in the facade. Though no decision has been made yet on color,
the architect said he was leaning toward the verdigris of weathered copper.
Beyond the lobby would be an inner courtyard that Mr. Piano likened to a piazza. Standing in this
space, at the heart of the complex, visitors would be able to orient themselves visually to their
On 37th Street, a small office building added in 1957 by the Lutheran Church would be replaced by a
new four-story structure.
On 36th Street, a faceted steel cube would be inserted between the original library of 1906, by
McKim, Mead & White, and the annex added 22 years later by Benjamin Wistar Morris after the
library opened to the public.
Inside would be a 20-by-20-by-20- foot room whose "magical" proportions would lend themselves to
the display of "a piece of the treasure house coming up from the vaults," Mr. Piano said.
But Robert A. M. Stern, a prominent architect and architectural historian, told the commission by letter
that he was concerned the cube "unnecessarily compromises the gardenesque setting that is key to the
meaning of the two buildings facing 36th Street."
Civic groups generally supported the plan, though some expressed reservations about adding the cube
and moving the entrance. "We will miss the sense of having the privilege of entering a unique private
space," said Sandra Levine of the Historic Districts Council.
Earlier in the day, the commission created the Murray Hill Historic District, an irregular five-block
swath between 34th and 39th Streets, Park and Lexington Avenues, filled with 19th- and early
20th-century row houses, as well as the Church of the New Jerusalem at 112 East 35th Street.
Calling it a "remarkably cohesive enclave possessing a distinct sense of place," Sherida E. Paulsen, the
commission chairwoman, confessed that she was surprised to learn last year that it was not already a
Thank you for sharing Stern. I have a magazine somewhere that has an article about this. I forgot about this project. I think it is Archit (ecture Magazine). I'll try to remember to look for it this week end. Thanks Christian for the RP Workshop link.
Through a plexiglass window on Madison Ave. It's still a hole in the ground, but a big one.
Thanks for the excellent link, Kris (as usual!). It gives a nice tour of the new "campus." I had been unaware of the new 280-seat performance hall, plus a multi-media presentation center suitable for family-oriented education events. (The new campus also includes a restaurant and store, seemingly required these days.) Hopefully with the additions a new generation will discover the "new" Morgan.
That must be the only block in Manhattan where you can dig without chopping into a nest of cables,steam pipes,water mains or subway tunnels.
Those utilities usually run under streets.
That was quick.
February 12, 2006
Streetscapes | 36th Street and Madison Avenue
A Private Library That Became a Public Treasure
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY
Last edited by Edward; February 15th, 2012 at 06:17 PM. Reason: Full text by Christopher Gray deleted