A Townhouse for Bibliophiles in Philadelphia
Just a stone’s throw from elegant Rittenhouse Square in the shadow of Philadelphia’s financial district, a 19th-Century townhouse beckons book lovers from around the world.
The Rosenbach Museum & Library is home to priceless literary and historical works, including rare books and manuscripts and documents tracing the history of the United States.
The museum’s gems range from the Bay Psalm Book, the first book printed in the American colonies, to the manuscript of novelist James Joyce’s masterpiece “Ulysses” and the living room of American poet Marianne Moore.
The Rosenbach collection, part of which is highlighted in special museum exhibitions, includes more than 30,000 books, 270,000 manuscripts, 20,000 art works on paper, 500 paintings and miniatures and 750 photographs.
Founded in 1954, the museum is the legacy of Philip Rosenbach (1863-1953) and his brother Dr. Abraham Simon Wolf Rosenbach (1876-1952), whose shops in Philadelphia and New York City were long a magnet for book collectors.
Abraham Rosenbach roamed the world acquiring literary treasures for wealthy clients. He also acquired a reputation as America’s most famous dealer in rare books and manuscripts.
To his friend, the writer Christopher Morley, Rosenbach was “the Pied Piper of rare editions. He blows an airy wheedling note and the old vellums and calfskins come trotting after him.”
His biographers called him “the Napoleon of the auction room, the man who set record prices year after year.”
His collecting prowess in a career spanning the first half of this century brought Rosenbach much wealth and publicity and occasional criticism.
Rosenbach’s 1928 purchase at auction of the manuscript of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” for $77,000 infuriated many Britons, who were aghast at the loss of a national treasure. The manuscript, later sold by Rosenbach for a $20,000 profit, was eventually returned to Britain.
The Rosenbach acquisition in 1924 of Joyce’s Ulysses manuscript for $1,975 inspired a sarcastic quatrain by the Irish writer.
Joyce was angered at being unable to raise the money to buy back the longhand manuscript of what is now considered the century’s most influential novel and because Rosenbach paid four times more at the same sale for a manuscript of Joseph Conrad’s novel “Victory.”
“Rosy Brook he bought a book
“Though he didn’t know how to spell it .
“Such is the lure of literature
“To the lad who can buy and sell it.”
No mere book dealer, however, Rosenbach was an avid collector whose love for his precious finds made possible the museum, which was established by trustees of the Rosenbach estate.
“Dr. Rosenbach was well known for putting ridiculously high prices on things that he really didn’t want to part with. That really became the foundation of his personal collection,” said Leslie Morris, the museum’s books and manuscripts curator.
A tour of the museum, housed in the four-story home shared by the brothers in their final years, testifies to broad and distinguished tastes.
Amid antiques collected by Philip Rosenbach, the collection yields distinct literary treasures at every turn. Historical documents and letters bear the great names of European and American history. There are manuscripts by Conrad, Geoffrey Chaucer and Charles Dickens, first editions of “Don Quixote” and “Robinson Crusoe,” books once owned by John Milton and Abraham Lincoln, even Herman Melville’s bookcase.
Then there is the Marianne Moore living room, whose contents, including a typewriter, books and autographed baseballs, were moved to the museum from Moore’s Greenwich Village apartment after her death in 1972 and precisely rearranged. The museum also houses the Moore archives.
Morris said the museum and library annually attract about 7,000 visitors and 450 literary researchers, who pore over authors’ manuscripts and letters.
“Our mission is not only to display but also to perpetuate (the Rosenbachs’) scholarly and social contributions,” Morris said. “We see as our mission to explain to the general public the importance of rare books and art objects.”
The Rosenbach Museum & Library is open to the public for tours Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. Address: 2010 DeLancey Place, Philadelphia, Pa. 19103. Call (215) 732-1600.