George Peabody, generally recognized as the father of modern philanthropy, built the Peabody Institute on Mount Vernon Place as a gift to the City of Baltimore. Dedicated to the education and betterment of Baltimore’s current and future citizens, the Peabody was conceived as a cultural center offering a free public reference library, conservatory of music, art gallery, and lecture hall. The Conservatory Building, or west wing, was built between 1858 and 1861 and the George Peabody Library, or east wing, between 1875 and 1878. Together, the conservatory and library wings of the Peabody Institute comprise two rectangular blocks joined by a square lobby to create a U-shape footprint.
The winner of the competition to design the Peabody was Edmund G. Lind, of the firm Lind and Murdoch. Lind was born in England, where he also trained as an architect at a time when the palazzo form had already become fashionable. Unsurprisingly, Lind chose the Renaissance Revival style for this important cultural institution. In fact, the trustees recognized that while Gothic Revival was popular locally at the time, the style would suit neither the classical tone set by the Washington Monument at the center of Mount Vernon Place, nor the architecture of the surrounding residences. Instead they opted for what they termed Lind’s “Grecian Italian” design. Noted Baltimore architect James Crawford Neilson was then retained to collaborate with Lind as the building progressed from design to construction phases.
The Peabody was also one of the first buildings in Baltimore to use structural iron, a material the Institute’s builders and trustees embraced for its economy and efficiency. In place of wood beams and trusses and masonry walls, as was common at the time, the Peabody utilized metal construction, with a relatively slender cast- and wrought-iron frame. The metal components allowed for the large, open spaces desired for the library and lecture hall, and also created a fireproof environment for the Institute’s extensive and valuable book collection. The Baltimore-based Bartlett, Robbins and Company (formerly Hayward, Bartlett and Company) created the iron framework as well as the decorative iron interior elements, and was also responsible for the forced-air ventilation and hot-water heating system. When combined with wrought-iron beams (manufactured by Pennsylvania’s Phoenix Iron Company) and iron roof trusses (from Buffalo’s Kellogg Bridge Company), a rigid framework was created at the Peabody.
Following a plan developed by the trustees, the Peabody was built in two phases, and although the library was originally the Institute’s main programmatic focus, it was built during the second stage of construction in the 1870s. Occupying the east or new wing, the library is a spectacular space consisting of six stories of alcove book stacks, including five gallery levels, all made of cast and wrought iron, decorated in paint and gold leaf, and filled with rare folios. It is this “cathedral of books” that has captured the imagination, and admiration, of architectural historians and bibliophiles alike.
Founder George Peabody came from humble beginnings to become an international merchant and financier, eventually amassing a fortune through the dry goods firm known as Riggs, Peabody and Company. He lived in Baltimore for twenty-two years, moving from there to London to better pursue his banking and commercial interests. Peabody was the first of the great philanthropists of the modern era, dedicating his considerable fortune largely towards providing educational opportunities. In addition to the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, he funded similar institutes in Massachusetts, Vermont, and Washington, D.C., as well as three museums of science, two state historical societies, and the Peabody Education Fund.
Beirne, Francis F. “Edmund G. Lind.” Baltimore Sun,November 8, 1954.
Dilts, James D., and John Dorsey. A Guide to Baltimore Architecture. 3rd ed. Centreville, MD: Tidewater Publishers, 1997.
Peabody Archives, Peabody Institute.
Price, Virginia. “Peabody Institute,” HABS No. MD-1157, Historic American Buildings Survey, National Park Service, 2004. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
Stanton, Phoebe B. “The Peabody Library.” Maryland Historical Magazine86 (Winter 1991): 423-435.