Art and Architecture at the “Palace for the People”: Boston Public Library

Majestically perched on the south end of Copley Square, across from (but careful not to overshadow) historic Trinity Church, sits the Boston Public Library. This Back Bay institution is of national significance for its history, art, and architecture. Join me on a tour of the highlights at this National Historic Landmark.

Second floor gallery in Boston Public Library's McKim Building featuring marble arches and murals
Second floor gallery in Boston Public Library’s McKim Building

Trivia question: What is the one library in the United States that is larger than Boston Public Library?

As a child growing up in New Hampshire, we frequently visited Boston. I have many memories of being in Copley Square and looking up at the imposing Boston Public Library building. In all those years, despite having a professor father and librarian mother, I somehow never set foot inside. On a recent trip to Boston, volunteer guide Dana Bos showed me what I had been missing.

History

The Boston Public Library (BPL), founded in 1848, first opened its doors in 1854 as the first free public library in the United States. (While Boston’s Athenaeum is older, it charged a fee, thus excluding a vast swath of the city’s population.)

As you may remember from your history lessons, in the early 1850s Boston saw a massive influx of immigrants, particularly as a result of the Irish famine. The founders’ decision to allow everyone free entry to the library was very progressive for their day, and the city’s working class and new immigrant population benefitted from access to information not given anywhere else in the country at that time.

Images from the front facade of the Boston Public Library, including the bust of Minerva, the Gothic lamps, names of great thinkers, and the three doors.
Top: Note the marking “FREE TO ALL” above the bust of Minerva, Goddess of Wisdom; B-L: these now-iconic Gothic lamps were very much in vogue at the time of construction; B-M: the front white marble facade also shows the names of great thinkers; B-R: the main entrance’s three arched doors.

Over the second half of the 1800s the library quickly outgrew its initial two rooms in a former schoolhouse. A new building was needed. Conveniently, at that time the tidal marshes in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood were being filled in to create new land. A plot there, on Copley Square, was granted to the library in 1880. 

Shot of the front facade of Boston Public Library's McKim Building, with the U.S. flag and two pride flags.
Built on filled-in land in the Back Bay neighborhood, the McKim Building rests on 5,000 tree trunks for stability.

McKim Building 

Charles F. McKim was appointed as the lead architect for the new building. Already a prominent figure, McKim was looking to build his legacy by designing a grand public institution. And that is exactly what he did, erecting an Italian Renaissance Revival style construction that affectionately became known as a “Palace for the People.” It was carefully designed so as not to conflict with the other buildings already on Copley Square (Trinity Church and Old South Church). 

The front facade shows the perfect symmetry characteristic of his chosen style. Note the 13 arched windows that illuminate the reading room inside (more on why those are particularly important later).

Stepping through one of the three arched doorways into the vestibule, we were greeted by an interior set of six bronze doors, each weighing 1,500 pounds and representing a different academic discipline. The doors were designed by Daniel Chester French, best known as the designer of the statue of Abraham Lincoln found in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

The Lions 

Moving into the lobby, I enjoyed some great people-watching. I stood and watched as guest after guest walked through the doors and were immediately stopped in their tracks by the grandeur of Louis Saint-Gaudens’ seated lions. 

Lion sculpture in the grand staircase of Boston Public Library's McKim building.
One of two lion sculptures flanking the grand staircase.

Before moving up the stairs towards the sculptures, Dana pointed out the arched mosaic ceiling with a veritable Boston scroll of honor (with names including Longfellow, Franklin, Bulfinch, and Emerson). Inlaid on the floor beneath us were the zodiac symbols, together with the names of the library’s founders, including Joshua Bates, a major donor for whom the majestic second floor reading room is named.

Proceeding up the grand staircase, we approached the iconic yellow marble lions commemorating two volunteer infantry units in the Civil War. They are made of the same marble seen on the pillars and walls around them, but stand out for their vastly different appearance: their stone in unpolished (except for the tails). As we proceeded up the stairs, Dana pointed out the polished tips of their tails and, following the custom, I rubbed one for good luck (this did not however prevent my flight from being canceled the following day).

On the second floor landing, we found more arches—a feature used to help the building bear the heavy loads of books it was designed to house. The impressive gallery around us was painted by famed muralist Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. Each panel depicted a separate discipline (although which ones was not always clear). Dana assured me, however, they included philosophy, history, poetry, and science.

Bates Hall 

Boston Public Library's iconic main reading room, Bates Hall, has a soaring barrel-vaulted ceiling, table lamps with free shades, and wooden bookcases.
Boston Public Library’s iconic main reading room, Bates Hall.

Just off the second-floor gallery we found Bates Hall, the library’s main reading room. The iconic room, with its soaring barrel-vaulted ceiling, green lampshades, and dark wooden bookcases, made me feel as if I had stepped right into a scene from Dead Poet’s Society. The hall is named for Joshua Bates, a wealthy banker in England, who was the main donor of both funds and books. His donations came with a few unusual conditions however. He stipulated that the library must:

1. Stay free to all forever;

2. Be warm in the winter;

3. Be well lit (remember those 13 arched windows I mentioned earlier?); and

4. Feel uplifting.

Why this odd set of conditions? They were likely born of his past. Bates had grown up poor in Weymouth, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. He no doubt remembered the hardships of his early life and the long, cold, dark New England winters and wanted a place of respite for his fellow citizens.

Abbey Room

After walking the length of Bates Hall we turned into the Abbey Room. The contrast to the adjoining space was stark. The dimly lit, dark-wood-paneled room was lined with early Renaissance murals painted by Edwin Austin Abbey. This was Abbey’s first-ever commission–a major break for him (he shared a studio with the much more experienced John Singer Sargent, who coached him throughout the project). This set of murals depicts King Arthur and the Quest for the Holy Grail.

This mural by Edwin Austin Abbey depicts King Arthur on his throne, as part of a series of murals depicting King Arthur and the Quest for the Holy Grail.
Mural by Edwin Austin Abbey depicting King Arthur on his throne.

This space was originally used as a receiving room and housed the card catalog (the library did not have any open stacks.) Patrons would hand a card from the catalog to the librarian, who would then fetch the corresponding tome. (Did anyone just ask themselves “What’s a card catalog?”)

Sargent Gallery

The final (and most famous) mural sequence in Boston Public Library was created by John Singer Sargent. It is tucked away up on the third floor, so many visitors unknowingly miss this highlight. Sargent was best known for his portraits, but he saw the library project as an opportunity to branch out from his typical style and create a masterwork. Sargent spent 28 years (interspersed with other work) painting the murals depicting world religions, and he considered them his life’s work. Sadly, Sargent died at age 55 before completing his final panel.

Mural by John Singer Sargent in the Sargent Gallery at Boston Public Library
This seated woman is believed to be based on Sargent’s beloved niece, a nurse who was killed in World War I.

Courtyard

Interior courtyard with arcaded gallery.

The last stop on our tour was the interior courtyard–a quiet, beautiful respite in the heart of the city. Its arcaded gallery is reminiscent of Rome’s sixteenth-century Palazzo della Cancelleria. The statue that stands in its center, Dancing Bacchante and Infant Faun, was a gift from McKim. Boston was notoriously Puritanical, and some residents protested the statue, thinking that the depiction of the Goddess of Wine glorified debauchery (Goddess of Wine, best job title ever!). Vexed by the rejection of his gift, McKim took back the statue and donated it to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Nearly a century later, the Met allowed the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to make an exact replica, which stands at the center of the courtyard today.

I timed a separate visit to the library to coincide with an installment of the popular Concerts in the Courtyard series. That day Philly-based Haitian singer Talie was entertaining the crowds with her dulcet tones, including this rendition of Jacques Brel’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas.”

Talie (@miss_talie) performing in the courtyard at Boston Public Library.

Where are the books?

Throughout the tour, Dana pointed out amazing art and architecture. But there seemed to be one glaring omission: books! This library had none. The library’s collection is no longer housed in the historic McKim building. Instead the Johnson Building, a modernist addition, was added in 1972. It is there that you will find the functional portions of the library today. 

The Johnson Building lobby
Lobby area of the Johnson Building, Boston Public Library.

How I would love to be a student in Boston and spend my afternoons studying in Bates Hall or reading in the courtyard. Do you have a favorite library? Which one? Please share your favorite in the comments!

Answer to the trivia question: The U.S. Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. is the largest library in the country.

Learn more

Boston Public Library offers a free Art and Architecture Tour, where you can see these highlights and learn more.

Historic New England: A Tour of the Region’s Top 100 National Landmarks, by Patricia Harris and David Lyon

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