May 24, 2010
We are excited to begin the first full restoration of the McKim building. During the Morgan's recent Renzo Piano expansion project, the building served as a vault for portions of our rare collections. When the McKim reopened in 2006, we realized that the interior of this American Renaissance landmark was in need of restoration. In order to allow for the necessary electrical work, we are temporarily closing the building, beginning June 1.
Shedding Light on the McKim: Overhaul of the Illumination System
Drawing on recent innovations in lighting technology, including LED lighting, the overhaul of the McKim illumination system is a key component of the restoration. While electrical panels and passages have been centralized over the years, the wiring is outdated and the fixtures inadequate to provide appropriate, subtle lighting of the spaces. The new lighting system will help retain the elegant aura of the building while allowing visitors to better appreciate details of craftsmanship in the architecture and interior decoration.
Additionally, historic lighting fixtures are being restored and reinstalled, including the hanging fixture from Mr. Morgan's library. Morgan was a patron of Edward F. Caldwell (1851–1914), New York's foremost manufacturer of light fixtures and decorative metalwork from the late-19th to the mid-20th centuries. The light fixture made for the library is a brilliant example of Caldwell's ability to adapt decorative, historical forms to the new demands of electric wiring. The Morgan's Director of Facilities, Thomas Shannon, notes, "We're restoring the original lighting fixture that hung in Morgan's library. Originally an oil lamp, with a smoke crown, it was electrified and hung on a chain more than twenty feet long. The bronze is beautifully chased, so we've had it cleaned for the first time and are replacing the glass globe, which was broken years ago." The fixture, along with an 1890s Persian rug of the type originally installed by Morgan, with its rich palette of reds, blues, greens, and canary yellows, will help restore a sense of the room's original decoration and aesthetics.
History of Lighting at the Morgan
The emphasis on lighting in our restoration seems appropriate given Pierpont Morgan's own interest in new technologies. In fact Morgan's house (replaced in 1928 by what is now the Morgan Annex) became the very first private residence in the country to be entirely lit by Edison electricity. A knob was installed at Morgan's bedside that was capable of activating the lights on the first floor, front hall, and cellar. The project was extremely difficult, involving the digging of a special cellar to accommodate the steam engine needed to run the generator, which made so much noise and smoke that the neighbors complained. Supports were subsequently placed under the engine, the house was lined with felt, and a trench was dug across the yard to funnel smoke and steam away from the houses. But problems still arose: Short circuits were frequent, and one night, the wiring set the library's desk on fire! Despite these events, Morgan forged ahead and continued, even against his father's wishes, to support Edison. His children testified to their father's ambitions and the ambitions of their time: "Certainly," Jack (Morgan's son John Pierpont Morgan, Jr.) wrote to his sister Louisa in 1883, "this is the age of electricity." Morgan's friends must have felt similarly because they followed his lead and invested heavily in Edison stock. As a result, the electric light industry took off in the United States.
This Edward F. Caldwell decorative light fixture sits in the studio of Aurora Lampworks, Brooklyn, waiting to be cleaned and restored to its original glory.