| Monday, October 6, 2008
| J.P. Morgan's Walnut Bookshelves
The tale of John Pierpont Morgan's bookshelves begins, I suppose, somewhere in the hardwood forests of the Mohawk, Oneida, Seneca, Onondoga, Cayuga, Tuscarora – who knows, somewhere in what was later called the Hudson River Valley, if I had to guess. Iroquois hunting grounds. Where a walnut seedling took root, and was growing gangbusters two hundred years later, a Canadian goose flight from where J.P. was born, in Hartford, Connecticut, one thousand eight hundred thirty seventh year of our lord.
Fly forward four hundred years to a phone call I received from New York asking if Greensaw would be interested in taking a look at J.P. Morgan's salvaged library shelves, currently being stored in a church warehouse in southwest Philadelphia. The client, Amy Langer, was interested in buying four sets, building cabinetry and drawers in the bays, and installing them into her Manhattan townhouse. Would we be willing to do the millwork and install?
It is no secret J.P. Morgan had good instincts. He was booked to sail on the maiden voyage of the Titanic, with his own promenade deck and private suite. He cancelled at the last minute. So it went with business (he is credited with saving the economy, and the United States Federal Goverment – twice) and so it went with the arts. He collected books, paintings and prints (he was president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) and fine woodwork. Those oeuvres not on loan to the Met he kept in his London House, or at his private library on 36th Street near Madison Avenue in New York City.
In 2005 the Morgan library underwent a renovation. The handcarved shelves fell into the hands of Olde Good Things, a venerable and respected purveyor of architectural salvage that has led the way in ensuring that much of America's heritage does not end up in a landfill. Amy was in the process of purchasing these shelves from OGT, and wanted us, as she so nicely put it, "to be her eyes and ears on the ground."
With all due respect to Old Goode Things, and to their foresight in rescuing these works of art, J.P. Morgan's bookshelves, whose dentils and pearls crown moulding is lovingly built from nine separate pieces of walnut, beautiful enough to bring a woodworker to his knees, are being stored in a hell hole. Like a pen of cows crowded into the corner before execution, piled up on themselves out of brute fear. Brass railings rusting in black puddles, dentils turning to dirt in plastic waste bins, pallettes threatening to be dragged underwater by groundwater from an unknown source – if these words accomplish any end, let them please spark a rescue effort for America's history molding away in the dankest of warehouses.
Which had no lights, as I found out, arriving on a sweltering day this past August. Thank you to Craig, who works for OGT, for the use of his Mag Lite. We went in through the front, square foot after square foot of utter junk. It was like travelling to the ocean floor where the Titanic lay, in 125 degree water. And there at the bottom, in a dark corner of 62nd & Cedar, we switched on the lights of our deep sea explorer. Lo and behold, from a hundred years before, the Morgan library shelves!
An associate once commented that the presence of J.P. Morgan felt like "a gale blowing through the house." He smoked upwards of a baker's dozen of cigars, (Cubans, called "Hercules Club"). The gales, the cigar smoke, frustrated exhalations from J.P.'s famously large nose over underperforming mergers – all must have contributed to the singular patina on the Morgan Library shelves that this light brought forth. The aforementioned dentil and pearl crown moulding, the subtle handcarved stiles, the mortised top and bottom rails, the flush escutcheons with oxidized brass numbers marking the bay. Notorious for his good taste, J.P. did not skimp when it came to his library. On going to see them, I expected them to speak, as all furniture does, in one register or another. Standing there with Craig's flashlight, preparing to dial Amy in New York and tell her exactly what she was looking at, these shelves seemed to be saying, in sotto vocce, "I dare you sonofabitch, I dare you to take me apart."
J.P. hated having his picture taken. A photograph of the old rhino has him looking back at the camera, winding up at the paparazzi with his black cane. Likewise, his son J.P. Jr. avoided publicity. So it makes sense that a library would be of no small value to the Morgan family. It was out of an open spirit, I suppose, and respect for his father, that J.P. Morgan Jr. opened the Pierpont Public Library in 1924. A sanctuary, with the most modern in heat, lighting, and the oldest, and finest in woodwork.
Our client Amy appreciated this. And, in her own brilliance, she wanted to take this process one step further. She wanted to build drawers, cabinets, shoe racks, an ironing board, puck lights, and wood shelving into the library shelves (see drawing below). And she wanted them taken apart, and installed as walk-in closets for her and her husband.
We rented a truck and alligator-wrestled the beasts into the back. Out they went to the shop, where we propped them up and stared at them for two weeks. We took a field trip to New York to see the site, and discussed how to get shelves up three floors. The conclusion, as you might have guessed: the shelves would need to be built with all the cabinetry, drawers and shoe racks, labeled, taken apart, and rebuilt in Manhattan. This would involve buying over a hundred board feet of American Walnut, twenty sheets of birch ply for drawers, and a whole lot of planning. It's the funny, paradoxical thing about working with architectural salvage: we're giving the damn stuff a second chance, rescuing it from the bottom of the ocean, but it doesn't return the favor. One bad cut and that's that.
So we went to work. Off came the walnut ply backs, out came the stiles and rails. Tim and Dave, who are leading the charge on the shelves, made a box to keep their saw straight, and minimize the kerf.
And alas it worked.
Dave and Tim routed the new walnut, cut the removed backs to correct size, and worked carefully off of Amy's mid-September drawings (below).
Special attention was paid to the outside mitred corners, and we used extra trim to piece in where the wood was damaged.
We discovered that the top crown was contructed from nine separate pieces, each handcarved, each requiring its own special treatment (we're getting paid good money by Coca-Cola, by the way. That endorsement was not free).
Usually, when you take furniture apart, it loses its grandeur. Not so with this stuff – the more we broke it down, the more the individual pieces seemed to sit on their own (see above). It gives one tremendous respect for the old timers, and gives us a heavy dose of humility. It's kind of depressing how much we don't know.
On the flip side of that coin, working with these shelves is something akin to taking a class in classic furniture design. Except the teacher doesn't speak -- he just does. You learn by taking apart what he does, and putting it back together again at your own speed, with your own design.
And so here we are, October 6, the sunlight growing crisper, T-shirts turn into sweatshirts, and the shelves turning into something different than they once were. I wonder what old J.P. would think strolling into our shop, his cane clicking on the cement floor, his badger eyes squinting.
Be that as it may, Tim and Dave have been kicking ass on this complicated job, balancing the need for speed with the importance of careful planning, mapping, clean cutting, and 360 degree thinking. Meanwhile the rest of us – Ryan, Brian, Niko and myself –have been completing a large green renovation of a house in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, incorporating a blend of salvage and new green construction that deserves its own blog. Problem is there are so many interesting things going on, it's hard to find time to sit down and write, nevermind take photos and try to put all this into words. Especially when I want to get my dirty hands with every little job. Perhaps with this first entry I will make a commitment to sit down and try to make sense of our nutty days, and the clients who make them so (Hi Rick!).
As for the Morgan library shelves, I think the entire crew is ready to pack up the truck and head north to complete a slew of work we've got scheduled in Gotham. Autumn in New York. A bunch of Philly boys let loose on the Upper East Side. Stay tuned.
|posted by Brendan Jones @ 5:20 PM