Museum Secrets: The Morgan Library and Museum

False bookcases, concealed identity and a zodiac code

Ceiling of Morgan Library
Ceiling of Morgan Library. Pingthing (Own work)/CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
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The Morgan Library & Museum

225 Madison Ave, New York, NY 10016, USA
Phone +1 212-685-0008

The 2006 renovation of The Morgan Library & Museum created a contemporary museum experience for visitors including a link between all the buildings and spaces for special exhibitions, performances, and lectures. Inside the original 1906 building once known as "Mr. Morgan's library" some of ​New York's best secrets lie waiting to be discovered.

The Renzo Piano-designed atrium unites the old library, the annex built on the spot where J.P. Morgan once lived and the brownstone where his son Jack Morgan lived. J.P. Morgan was America's most famous banker and a collector of art and manuscripts. Pieces of his collections can be found in other museums, most notably the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but his greatest treasures remain in the museum. In 1924, the collection was opened up to the public.

Here is a room-by-room guide to the secrets of The Morgan.

The Rotunda

Once the main entrance to the library, the space was heavily influenced by the Italian Renaissance. The paintings in the rotunda's dome were inspired by the paintings that Raphael did for Pope Julius II in the Stanza della Segnatura. Like the Pope who was also the patron of Michelangelo, Morgan saw himself as a patron of the arts.

The Librarian's Office

The small room north of the rotunda flanked by lapis lazuli columns was the librarian's office until the 1980s. The most famous among all the Morgan's librarians was Belle da Costa Greene (1879-1950) who Morgan hired in 1905 to manage his collection of rare books and manuscripts. Later she became the first director of the public museum, a rare position of power for a woman at that time. Even more surprising is that Greene concealed her racial identity that classified her as "colored" on her birth certificate. She had changed her name to claim a false Portuguese ancestry she used to explain her darker skin. Though Greene's father was famous in academic circles for being the first African-American to graduate from Harvard College as well as the first Black librarian and professor of the University of South Carolina, she felt her racial identity would have held her back from the accomplishments she earned in the art and rare book world at that time. 

Mr. Morgan's Study

J.P. Morgan used this room as his personal study and it is here where pivotal points of American financial history were discussed and debated. When the Panic of 1907 broke out, Morgan was in Virginia, but attached his private car to a steam engine and returned to New York overnight. For the next few weeks, he worked with advisors in the library and study and worked out the rescue and demise of several institutions. Later his role in the crisis was criticized and he became the face of the miserly banker whom Frank Capra may have used as the model for the character of Mr. Potter in the classic film,"It's a Wonderful Life."​

Inside the study is Mr. Morgan's vault which is open to the public. Lesser known is that the bookcase immediately to the right of the vault is false. Look for the seam and hinge that reveals the place where the hollow case swings open. ​

The Library

A grand two-tiered library displays thousands of books. Look on either side of the main entrances for light leaking underneath the walnut bookcases. Each is actually a door which leads to concealed staircases behind the books. Often during parties, Morgan liked to seem to appear out of nowhere after descended from behind the stacks.

The library's ceiling contains zodiacal signs that are arranged in a way that was personally meaningful to Morgan. The two signs immediately above the entrance are Aries and Gemini which correspond to his birthdate and second marriage. These would be considered his two lucky stars. Directly across from these Gemini is Aquarius, the sign under which his first wife and true love of his life had died. Across from his Aries is Libra, the sign which he was assigned when he joined the very secret ​Zodiac Club. Formed in 1865, the Zodiac Club is an invitation-only clubs that meet for dinner once a month. They are still in existence today and past members include the wealthiest tycoons and power brokers in history. J.P. Morgan was initiated as Brother Libra in 1903. His son took over the seat when he passed away and kept the brothers of the Zodiac supplied with France's finest wine throughout Prohibition.

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Secrets of the Oldest Building at the Morgan Library and Museum