John Pierpont Morgan was one of the great tycoons. He was also the banker largely responsible for underwriting the construction of modern America, using his wealth and his central market position to manipulate his way into dominating positions in railroads, steel, mining, electricity, shipping and finance.
He had a thing for books. And over the course of a 76 year life collected an amazing array of literature, from the oldest human writings in Mesopotamian seals, cuneiform tablets, Egyptian papyrus fragments, illuminated manuscripts, the letters of historical figures, musical scores, and early and annotated works of great writers. He also went in, on a lesser scale, for painting and sculpture, most of which has since been donated to various museums. What remains—and there’s a lot, including three, count ‘em, Gutenberg Bibles—is kept at the library he built across from his townhouse, on 36th at Madison.
Which is open to the public, and which when hungover on a Saturday morning you can waft around and marvel at, reading Thomas Hardy or George Washington or John Keats in their own handwriting. The seasonal exhibitions rotate, at the moment it’s the illustrated letters of Beatrix Potter, which are heartbreakingly lovely. The original neoclassical building has been enlarged with the addition of a Renzo Piano hangar, three stories tall and set with café tables, in tone very like an Florentine piazza, but where people in blazers will be professionally courteous to you, in low voices. This is one of the city’s great places to brunch off a headache. The kitchen is open from 11am, where you can get a Yellowfin Niçoise ($22) or a Morgan Burger ($15.50; it’s a regular burger), and take the weight off after some heavy art appreciation. During this you can murmur to your companion about how this capture of overwhelmingly European cultural wealth—wave an airy hand at the baronial fireplaces, Beethoven manuscripts, Byron poems, the early printings of Aristotle and St Augustine, Charlemagne’s own bible—all this represent an important part of the transfer of power from the Old World to the New.
The Morgan Library
225 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10016
Hours: Tuesday through Thursday 10:30am-5pm