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Boston Public Library

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1888–1895, McKim, Mead and White; 1972 addition, Philip Johnson; 2001 restoration, Shepley, Bulfinch, Richardson and Abbott. Copley Sq.
  • Boston Public Library (Peter Vanderwarker or Antonina Smith)
  • (Damie Stillman)
  • (Damie Stillman)
  • (Damie Stillman)
  • (Damie Stillman)
  • (Photograph by Robert S. Salzar)
  • (Photograph by Robert S. Salzar)

A paradigmatic example of the American Renaissance, no more handsome building of the Beaux-Arts exists in Boston than the Boston Public Library, founded in 1852 as the first free municipal library in the United States. The present building stands on a prominent site facing Trinity Church, Boston (BB37) across Copley Square. A rectangular solid with a court in the middle, the library has eclectic sources—Henri Labrouste's Bibliothèque St. Geneviève in Paris and Italian Renaissance precedents.

From the broad platform to the triple arched entrance, flanked by Bela Pratt's grand bronze statues representing personifications of Science and Art, one ascends to the bronze portals by Daniel Chester French that flank the central entrance with its wrought-iron lanterns. Above, three marble seals sculpted by Augustus Saint-Gaudens represent the commonwealth, the Boston Public Library, and the city of Boston. Most moving are the letters in the center seal proclaiming, “Free to All.” That words form the principal contents of the library is reinforced by the names carved into the panels on the Copley Square facade, representing the great contributors to world culture as conceived in the late nineteenth century. This book of stone on the exterior becomes a veritable “palace for the people” on the interior.

Like the exterior, the interior may be considered a total work of art in its fusion of all the arts in its encyclopedic program. Upon entrance into the vestibule, the senses are confronted with a wealth of colors, materials, and textures, from the lions guarding the marble stairs to the whole upper level adorned by Pierre Puvis de Chavanne's frescoes representing the muses. In the present catalogue room, Guastavino tiles (see WO4) form the vaulted ceiling, and mosaics are inscribed with the names of prominent American authors. Bates Hall, the grand barrel-vaulted reading room, dominates the main story; adjacent, the upper walls of the Delivery Room depict the Quest for the Holy Grail by Edwin Austin Abbey. Ascending to the top floor, we are greeted by John Singer Sargent's murals representing Judaic and Christian theology, according to Old and New Testament accounts. Perhaps the jewel of the building is the central arcaded courtyard. Related to that of the Cancelleria Palace in Rome, it constitutes a beautiful oasis of peace and quiet in the heart of Back Bay. A cast of Frederick W. MacMonnies's Bacchante (1893), commissioned for the fountain but rejected because its nudity and wanton abandon offended Boston sensibilities, graces the center of the courtyard since the recent restoration. Today, the court also forms a passage to the livelier addition.

Philip Johnson's wing was contextual before the concept was popularized. Respecting the cornice, material, and roofline of the McKim building, Johnson's composition is based on its own inner geometric logic. Its grand external arches hardly do justice to the sophisticated complexity of the addition's structural system. A large cube divided into nine square parts, its center forms a grand entrance hall. Staircases with metal rails border a space too vast, one in which the void is too pronounced, even when occupied by temporary exhibits. Beyond are open stacks, facilities for children, and programs open to the public in the below-ground auditorium. These make the addition the favored and frequented part, more heavily used than the McKim building. In 2001, the Boston Society of Architects presented the Harleston Parker Prize to Shepley, Bulfinch, Richardson and Abbott for their restoration of the original Boston Public Library.

Writing Credits

Keith N. Morgan

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