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Manhattan Transfer: The Morgan Library Picks Up the Baton in Museum Garden Glamor

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Manhattan Transfer: The Morgan Library Picks Up the Baton in Museum Garden Glamor

August 8, 2023

It’s a generous act to share a garden with passersby, keeping the perimeters transparent instead of hiding interesting things behind a privacy screen. When a museum allows its garden to be visible from the street, the invitation is there: Buy a ticket and see some more. At the Morgan Library on 36th Street, a blank space around an imposing stone loggia has become a garden destination that can be physically accessed for the first time. It’s a lesson in how to add life and panache to an august survivor of the Gilded Age.

In the spirit of JP Morgan, a patrician collector and banker who grew up in wealth and among beautiful things, the trustees of the Morgan Library have chosen carefully in their commissions, having enlisted Renzo Piano for the 2006 expansion (and the creation of a new public entrance on Madison Avenue) to the original classic by McKim, Mead and White. In 2016, landscape designer Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, known in the UK for restoring gardens belonging to the Royal Palaces, was brought in to revitalize the space, which he describes as “a whiff of Rome in Midtown Manhattan.”

Above: A Venetian well-head from the 15th century sits serenely among octagonal flower beds, echoing not only the footprint of the stone work but embossed shapes around the loggia designed by McKim, Mead and White in the first years of the twentieth century. Photograph courtesy of the Morgan Library.

Describing the campus that runs the length of the library and museum on 36th Street, Todd likens the former lawn to a “plinth” above the street. “There was scope to use this unelaborated ground plane to establish new visual and physical connections among the McKim Library, the Annex, and Renzo Piano’s Piazza–to inscribe it with a new geometry, and to enhance it with antique artifacts that had been acquired by JP Morgan with a view to being placed in his garden.”

Above: Rich textures and patterning can be seen on horizontal and vertical planes as well as the 3-dimensional antiquities in generous, full view of passersby. Despite this, the neoclassical building is fairly simple in design. Photograph courtesy of the Morgan Library.

“The greatest challenge of this commission was to create a garden that supplied a sense of unity and coherence across the campus,” continues Todd. “One that quietly and playfully complements, but that neither disturbs nor imposes itself upon the existing enfilade of outstanding buildings that form the Library’s East 36th Street frontage.” The result is demure yet fiercely stylish—quite a mix, and something that could be said about the public designs of Russell Page. The late-lamented garden by that British designer at the Frick Collection was once visible behind railings on Fifth Avenue. Undergoing refurbishment, the space will be much reduced when the scaffolding finally comes down.

Above: A Roman sarcophagus highlights a couple of lions attacking their prey, in contrast to a cool pair of lionesses flanking the steps. Carved from blocks of Tennessee marble, like the building, the sculptor Edward Clarke Potter worked from sketches that he had made at Bronx Zoo. A decade later, he was responsible for the male lions outside the New York Public Library. Photograph by Kendra Wilson.

In 1912, JP Morgan hired a young Beatrix Farrand to make a garden around what was his home, as well as the home of his extensive collections (the library). Her intention was to display antiquities outside the building, bought by Morgan for that purpose. The garden remained undeveloped but Todd Longstaffe-Gowan followed historical clues and embedded these objects in ground patterns laid out in pebbles and cut in bluestone.

Planting along the bronze gates includes Digitalis ferruginea and Heuchera villosa ‘Autumn Bride’ (seen here) as well as the grass Hakonechloa macra. Amsonia ‘Blue Ice’ is also a feature, with tough Aruncus dioicus and Geranium ‘Rozanne’.

Above: A master mosaic designer, Orazio Porto, was brought over from Sicily to enhance the ground plane, which has the vibrancy and meticulous detail of beading on a couture dress. Photograph by Valery Rizzo.

Another clue to the success of this elegant garden is in the attention paid to the ground. Inside the library, contrasting marble cut into diamond and rectangular pieces, was inspired by flooring at the Vatican in Rome, and this is continued under the loggia, the shapes being substituted for bluestone in the garden. It is un-grouted, in a similar way to the Tennessee marble of the building which was precision-laid, without cement.

Above: Every detail of the original 1902 project was carried out meticulously by craftsmen and this kind of perfectionism has not been compromised in the exterior’s refurbishment 115 years later. Photograph by Valery Rizzo.

“Like Morgan and McKim, I, too, was guided by historical precedent,” says Longstaffe-Gowan. “I, too, looked to Pirro Ligorio and his Casino Pio IV in the Vatican, where he inscribed patterns on the ground plane to integrate a complex architectural composition.”

Above: Seen from under the awnings of Murray Hill apartment buildings across the street, the library and museum’s exterior is as quiet as ever, enhanced by its original features of immaculate bronze railings and the simple yet very grand architecture of McKim, Mead and White. Photograph courtesy of the Morgan Library.

Todd Longstaffe-Gowan will be giving a talk on ‘Lost Gardens of London’ at the Garden Museum in London on December 5, 2023.

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Frequently asked questions

What is the Morgan Library in New York City?

The Morgan Library is a museum and research library located in New York City. It houses a vast collection of rare books, manuscripts, drawings, prints, and other artworks.

What is the Garden at the Morgan Library?

The Garden at the Morgan Library is a contemporary landscape designed by Todd Longstaffe-Gowan. It is an outdoor space adjacent to the museum that serves as a tranquil retreat in the heart of Manhattan.

Who is Todd Longstaffe-Gowan?

Todd Longstaffe-Gowan is a renowned landscape architect and historian. He is known for his expertise in creating historically-inspired contemporary gardens.

What is the concept behind the Garden at the Morgan Library?

The concept behind the Garden at the Morgan Library is to create a harmonious blend of history, art, and nature. It takes inspiration from the Morgan's renowned collection, as well as the architectural and cultural context of the surrounding neighborhood.

What are some notable features of the Garden?

The Garden features a central reflecting pool, a series of raised beds filled with perennial plants, and several seating areas for visitors to relax and enjoy the peaceful atmosphere. It also incorporates elements of classical garden design, such as hedges and formal geometry.

Can visitors explore the Garden at the Morgan Library?

Yes, the Garden at the Morgan Library is open to the public. Visitors can access it during the museum's operating hours and enjoy its beauty and tranquility.

Are there any events or programs held in the Garden?

Yes, the Garden at the Morgan Library serves as a venue for various events and programs throughout the year. These may include concerts, lectures, and other special gatherings that celebrate the intersection of art and nature.

Is there an admission fee to visit the Garden?

The Garden at the Morgan Library is free to visit. However, the museum may charge an admission fee for access to its indoor exhibitions and collections.

Can the Garden be rented for private events?

Yes, the Garden at the Morgan Library can be rented for private events, such as weddings, receptions, or corporate functions. Interested individuals or organizations can contact the Morgan Library for more information regarding event rentals.

Is photography allowed in the Garden?

Yes, photography is allowed in the Garden at the Morgan Library for personal use. However, commercial or professional photography requires prior permission from the museum.

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