Green space has always been a potent mental necessity. And in New York, a patch of grass—admittedly, even turf—is a godsend. Life within this concrete metropolis invites median picnics, windowsill gardens, and Central Park sunbathing. But of course there are those sparse horticultural havens that are sometimes the only thing keeping us from pulling our hair out. The Morgan Library’s newly renovated garden is one of them.
The library has revealed a $13 million, six-year-long makeover that included a new roof and a meticulous facade restoration, the first restoration the landmark building has seen in more than a century. Its crown jewel, however, is a 5,000-square-foot garden, the work of London-based Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, the architect behind the Kensington Palace gardens and the Hampton Court landscape. “We had at our fingertips the remarkable resources and collections of the Morgan Library, as well as manuscripts and all the motifs in the building, which are so remarkably rich,” says Longstaffe-Gowan. “We mined it all quite extensively, and those we used to inform the design.”
Built between 1902 and 1906, the building began as the private library of John Pierpont Morgan—the American financier who dominated corporate finance on Wall Street throughout the Gilded Age and was, most fittingly, an avid collector. When Morgan died in 1913, he left behind a personal collection of manuscripts, printed books, prints, drawings, and ancient artifacts—a trove worth over $900 million. In the century since, the library and an accompanying mid-19th-century brownstone and annex were transformed into a world-class museum, thanks to an expansion by Pritzker Prize–winning architect Renzo Piano a decade ago. But the library building itself had fallen into neglect, the seashell-colored Tennessee limestone smokey with pollution and the front lawn an unkempt plot.
Today, at Madison Avenue on East 36th Street, detailed cast-iron gates now open to an airy green loggia. Blushing white geraniums flank bluestone walkways and patterned pebblework pavements hailing from the Ionian Sea—an extension of the Library’s Renaissance-inspired ornamentation. A grass lawn, meanwhile, sweeps in front of the Piano-designed modern pavilion. “The plants we used were deliberately low so as to respect the integrity of the building,” says Longstaffe-Gowan. “The intention was to make it light and airy.”
The landscape architect also made use of classical sculptures dug out of the museum’s collection: a Roman funerary slab, or stele, a pair of Renaissance corbels, and a Roman stone coffin in the courtyard. Longstaffe-Gowan’s classically informed historical sensibilities are evident throughout the Morgan’s garden: The stately linearity of his pathways, the raw Mediterranean materials, and the lusciousness of living flora contrast against ancient stone structures. The sum of these old-world elements is equal parts grandeur and restraint, an effect that will be amplified at night when an outdoor lighting scheme created by designer Linnaea Tillett will bathe the building in a moonlight effect.
The Morgan Library will unveil the finished restoration through a series of community events free to the public, after which the garden will remain open to ticket holders through October 9. The celebration is set to coincide with an exhibition, “J. Pierpont Morgan’s Library: Building the Bookman’s Paradise,” which chronicles the history of the library and features period photographs, architectural drawings, and manuscripts from Morgan’s collection.
“The new garden is a whiff of Rome in Midtown Manhattan,” says Longstaffe-Gowan. “It is hoped that its presence shall induce passersby who are unfamiliar with the library and museum to explore its outstanding collections.”