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The Death of Joseph Breck and the Formation of The Cloisters Library

Michael Carter
September 11, 2014

Breck bookplate
Bookplate from the personal library of Joseph Breck

«When, in 1925, the Metropolitan Museum purchased the building and collection amassed by George Grey Barnard that he had named "The Cloisters," its stewardship was given to Joseph Breck, then chief curator of the Decorative Arts Department. As the first director of The Cloisters museum and gardens, he oversaw a new installation of the collection, the electrification of the galleries, and the laying of garden spaces. But his greatest charge was coordinating the design of an entirely new building, funded by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., in what is now Fort Tryon Park

Joseph Breck, 1917
Joseph Breck, ca. 1917. Source: Metamuseum Tumblr

Breck clearly poured himself into the project, working tirelessly—some would say, obsessively—on developing the general layout with the building's architects and then refining its many complicated features. A very fine draftsman—he had been an illustrator for the Harvard Lampoon in his college days—Breck had a vision and attention to detail that proved crucial in creating the sensitive balance of elements that makes The Cloisters work, but his process at times proved taxing for his colleagues. His sensitive eye and expertise clearly impressed Rockefeller, even if the philanthropist found frustration in the additional expense created by Breck's continued honing and finessing of details.

In the summer of 1933, after signing off on a final version of his proposals for the building, Breck traveled to Europe to spend several weeks conducting research and seeking acquisitions for the new museum but also taking some time to relax. Correspondence from this time between Breck and James J. Rorimer, then an associate curator in the Decorative Arts Department, portrays an active yet carefree Breck as he made his way from Normandy in June, through Paris—where he was awarded the Légion d'honneur—and then on to Switzerland. Therefore, it must have come as a terrible shock when, on August 2, Rorimer received a telegram from Breck's friend Rowland Burdon-Muller in Lucerne informing him that the forty-eight-year-old Breck had died of a heart attack while out on a walk in the village of Villars-sur-Ollon.

Telegram announcing Breck's death
Telegram from Roland Burdon-Muller to James J. Rorimer announcing Breck's death, August 2, 1933. James J. Rorimer Papers; box 1, folder 1; The Cloisters Library and Archives, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

With Breck's death, Rorimer was elevated to the position of curator for the newly formed Department of Medieval Art and handed the heavy responsibility of continuing Breck's role as overseer in the creation of the new Cloisters. One of his first tasks, however, was to execute the dispersal of some of Breck's possessions, including his personal library. Apparently, it soon struck Rorimer that the portion of Breck's books devoted to medieval studies should form the core of a library to be housed in the new museum; another seventy-six of his books would be accessioned as art objects by the Department of Prints.

In addition, Rorimer was soon encouraging Breck's friends and associates "to help establish a fund for the purchase of some additional Mediaeval books which with a fitting book plate could be used as a memorial to Mr. Breck in the new Cloisters library" (Letter from Rorimer to Roland Burdon-Muller, October 3, 1933, The Cloisters Institutional and Administrative Records, The Cloisters Library and Archives, The Metropolitan Museum of Art).

Colleagues and associates stepped forward with both funds and books. A close friend of Breck's, archaeologist and Sherlock Holmes scholar Harold Wilmerding Bell (1885–1947), donated 187 volumes in November 1934 and continued donating material after the library opened in 1938. Selections were also received from the widow of noted medievalist Arthur Kingsley Porter, who himself had disappeared and was presumed to have died while out on a walk on the Irish coast less than a month before Breck's death. (Breck had actually received this news while in Villars-sur-Ollon.)

Rorimer then set out to fill in the gaps in the nascent library's holdings. Records in The Cloisters Archives show that he exerted an especially concerted effort to ensure that the library would house a solid collection related to medieval gardens, sending inquiries to antiquarian dealers in the United States and Europe in search of specific titles. Also, by 1935, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. himself began purchasing and donating books directly for the library; in early 1938, he suggested that $4,000 ($67,000 in 2014 dollars), from funds remaining in the museum construction budget, be allocated specifically to acquire additional titles.

Left: 1936 design for the library reading room. Right: Newly arrived books being installed in the library, early 1938
Left: 1936 design for the library reading room (The Cloisters and Ft. Tryon Park Architectural Drawings and Prints, The Cloisters Library and Archives, The Metropolitan Museum of Art). Right: Newly arrived books being installed in the library, early 1938. (The Cloisters: Photographs 1938, The Cloisters Library and Archives, The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

By spring 1938, books began to arrive in the recently completed library, in time for the new museum's opening in May. Lack of a dedicated librarian, though, led to a restriction that books were to be used solely by staff and not removed from the reading room. James Rorimer had always wanted, however, for the holdings to be available to outside researchers; in fact, when author and graphic artist P.K. Thomajan submitted to a letter to the editor of the New York Times titled "Library Wanted in Cloisters" (March 23, 1940), Rorimer responded personally to alert him that there was indeed a library in the building, lamenting that budgeting kept it closed to the public and offering him a tour on his next visit.

Cloisters Library in 2014

The Cloisters Library, 2014. Photograph by Michael Carter

In time, The Cloisters Library received dedicated professional staff. It is now open to outside researchers, by appointment, from Monday through Friday, 10:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. While it may have been Joseph Breck's personal collection and the donations in his honor that helped create the nucleus of the library's holdings, it was James Rorimer's persistence and organization that ensured that the library would be a worthy resource for museum staff and researchers of medieval art, history, and horticulture. It was fitting, then, that after Rorimer's death in 1966, the Billy Rose Foundation stepped forward with a generous donation to endow future library acquisitions in his honor. To this day, new additions to the library receive bookplates noting that they were purchased "In Honor of James J. Rorimer."

Related Link
The Cloisters Library and Archives

Michael Carter

Michael Carter is the associate Museum librarian at The Met Cloisters.