It didn’t take long for me to require a break from the sensory assault of Times Square. Fortunately, two of the world’s loveliest libraries are a short walk away. A library visit won’t be at the top of everyone’s New York sightseeing checklist, but these institutions are fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable to tour.
It had been years since my last visit to this museum centered on the library of financial titan Pierpont Morgan, and it was my first time seeing Renzo Piano’s airy 2006 addition connecting the three historic buildings on the property. The temporary exhibitions are usually of the highest quality. This time, we saw an original Emancipation Proclamation and a handwritten copy of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery in the “Lincoln Speaks” exhibition; vivid works by the likes of Picasso, Schiele, Grosz, Warhol and Matisse in a display of the museum’s modernist drawings; and pages from the exquisitely illuminated Rose Haggadah, a text read each year during Passover.
An audio guide relates the rich history of Morgan’s library and office, grand spaces decorated in high neo-Renaissance style. I stood right behind the man’s desk and surveyed his extraordinary art collection including works by Botticelli, Memling and Bellini. Here, Morgan famously locked in leading financial leaders until they agreed on a way to deal with the stock market collapse of 1907. Beyond an ornate foyer, which wouldn’t feel out of place in the Vatican, the library’s three stories of inlaid-wood bookcases are capped with sumptuously frescoed lunettes. Morgan assembled a gorgeous collection of books, including no fewer than three Gutenberg Bibles (one is on display to the left of the library’s entrance).
225 Madison Avenue. Tel. (212) 685-0008.
We saw a second pristine Gutenberg Bible on display in the Beaux Arts Schwarzman Building overlooking Bryant Park, two blocks from Times Square. We have visited the library before, of course, but we had never taken one of the free guided tours offered daily at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. (Sundays at 2 p.m. only). Our group of about 30 was large for my taste, but our guide proved both personable and passionate about the library. In addition to showing us the expected ornate research spaces such as the Map Division and Periodical Room, he pointed out the remains of the reservoir atop which the library stands, discussed conservation challenges and explained why the Milton quotes adorning the palatial Rose Main Reading Room have no attribution (you’re just supposed to know them). Don’t miss the chance to see the original Winnie the Pooh stuffed animal in the basement Children’s Center.
Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street. Tel. (917) 275-6975.