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The People’s Palace
Manya Chylinski

Stand in the main entrance hall and imagine what it was like to be here as the library was being built in the 1890s. Workmen, some local, some immigrant, garbed in wool pants and suspenders, long sleeves rolled up, hands and faces dusty and tired. Shouting and guttural laughs heard above the hammers and trowels scraping mortar on tiles; half-finished arches looming above you and the sun shining in through the open roof. Passersby in dark suits, hats, full-length dresses, stepping over mud puddles in the street and pausing briefly to watch the scene. Trinity Church in all its Romanesque grandeur and Old South Church in Italian Gothic glory, standing guard, watching over the newcomer.

Bring your mind back to today and the space is filled with students and researchers, laptops in hand, rushing upstairs to study in Bates Hall or over to the Johnson Building to check out a few books. Tourists gaze up at the mosaic ceiling or stoop to view the brass inlays on the floor; librarians answer questions and direct patrons to events and exhibits throughout the library. And children giggle in nervousness as they approach Saint-Gaudens’ lions on the landing of the grand staircase. Not only is the central branch of the Boston Public Library a place to do research or borrow books, it is also a National Historic Landmark, a museum, a presidential library, an outstanding example of Renaissance Beaux-Arts architecture, a community center, and a tremendous resource for the citizens of Boston.

Two buildings conjoin to form the Copley Square branch of the library. The original building was designed by Charles Follen McKim and built between 1888 and 1895. It was designed to be functional yet lavish and grand, a palace for the people of Boston. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote a poem for the laying of the cornerstone in 1888:

Behind the ever-open gate
No pikes shall fence a crumbling throne,
No lackeys cringe, no courtiers wait, —
This palace is the people’s own!

After several decades, the McKim building was not sufficient to house the BPL's growing collection or meet the needs of the swelling population of Boston. So an addition was commissioned from renowned architect Philip Johnson. Built between 1965 and 1972, the Johnson Building added much needed space for the collection, public meeting spaces, and library offices. While similar pageantry did not accompany the creation of this building, it has an architectural grandeur of its own and was designed to echo a few of McKim’s special features. Johnson used the same material—Milford granite—for his addition, he made the outside elevation similar in appearance with the same massing and roofline, placed arched windows on the second story, and included a central courtyard (interior in this case) within the building.

On the landing of the grand main staircase sit two proud couchant lions. Designed by Louis Saint-Gaudens, these two lions are carved from unpolished Sienna marble, the same marble used on the walls of the landing
and the gallery at the top of the stairs. These lions remain nameless as they are placed here in memory of two infantry units that fought for Massachusetts in the Civil War. Legend has it that if you rub the tail of
one of the lions you will have good luck.

At the top of the main staircase are several murals by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, at the time one of the best-known French muralists. This commission was the first he ever accepted for a work outside of France. At the time he was hired to paint these murals, Puvis de Chavannes was in his seventies and did not want to travel to Boston from Paris. So, McKim sent him a sample of the Sienna marble and a model of the lobby and staircase. He painted the murals in his studio in Paris and exhibited them briefly there before he sent them here. Once the murals arrived here in Boston, they were affixed permanently to the walls.

He selected as his theme the branches of human knowledge and the “intellectual treasures collected in this beautiful building.” The north wall features poetry—epic, dramatic, and pastoral, and next to the window, physics. The south wall features murals that symbolize history, astronomy, and philosophy, and next to the window, chemistry. The large mural on the second floor at the top of the stairs is The Muses of Inspiration Welcoming the Spirit of Light.

Through the door in the middle of The Muses of Inspiration Welcoming the Spirit of Light one enters Bates Hall. Joshua Bates was born in Weymouth, Massachusetts and made his fortune as a banker with Baring Brothers and Co. in London. In 1852 he read the first Annual Report published the library’s trustees and was inspired to donate funds to the library. He donated $50,000 (equivalent to approximately $1.2 million in 2006) with a few conditions: “the building shall be such as to be an ornament to the City, that there shall be a room for one hundred to one hundred and fifty persons to sit at reading tables, and that it be perfectly free to all.” The first Bates Hall was in the first library building on Boylston Street and when the new building was created, the reading room was named after Bates to honor his generous gift. Bates Hall is 281 feet long and 50 feet high with a barrel-vaulted ceiling and fifteen arched windows overlooking Copley Square. On the north wall, above the social science reference desk, sits a blank panel. James McNeill Whistler was sought out to paint a mural here, but an agreement could not be reached and the panel remains blank.

At the south end of Bates Hall, one exits into the Abbey Room, also known as the Book Delivery Room. Edwin Austin Abbey, an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly and Harper’s Monthly, was an American artist residing in England. He got the commission through his fiancé, who was sitting for a portrait to give Abbey as a wedding gift. The artist was Augustus Saint-Gaudens who was working closely with McKim on the library project. Through Saint-Gaudens’ urging, she persuaded Abbey to take the commission. The murals here are Abbey’s first paintings in oil. The Quest for the Holy Grail is comprised of fifteen panels depicting the legend of Sir Galahad on his quest for the Holy Grail. Some of the panels were exhibited in London and at the World’s Fair in Chicago before being installed here in the library.

On the third floor of the library sits the Sargent Gallery. John Singer Sargent, known best at the time for his portraiture, received the commission for these murals. He selected as his theme the development of the religions of the world. He worked on these murals over a span of thirty years, during which he not only held paintbrush in hand, but he traveled to do research, spent much time reflecting on the theme, and took on smaller commissions. He worked on the paintings in his and others’ studios and, like Abbey, came to the library to oversee the installation. The north end of the gallery represents the biblical history of the Jews and the south end represents Christian themes. The east wall, above the stairway, is incomplete. Two paintings frame a large empty space, obvious in a room full of such ornamentation and color. Those paintings, in fact, are in part the cause of that empty space. Church on the right and Synagogue on the left caused a bit of a stir in Boston society when they were installed. And in part because of the uproar, Sargent never undertook to paint the final panel before his death in 1925.

Until Church and Synagogue were installed, sentiments about the murals were positive, despite the potentially volatile topic of religion. After these paintings were installed, sentiments changed. Despite the fact that Sargent was referencing medieval iconography in his depictions of these subjects, many felt the fallen, blinded Synagogue was anti-Semitic, especially in juxtaposition to the triumphant, outward-looking Church. As quoted in the Boston Globe, the director of the Zionist Bureau of New England felt “…Israel should have been depicted more properly as an old man with a flowing beard. This conception suggests that the synagogue represents things that are broken and passed away. Not only does the Jew believe that Judaism has never died, but that it has retained its vitality and still maintain(sic) its influence.”

John Adams Library
The Boston Public Library houses the personal library of president John Adams, and is the only public library to serve as a repository of a president's personal book collection. The library is housed in the Rare Books room and consists of almost 4,000 items, some from his collection and some donated by members of his family. This collection also is important because it is one of the largest early American libraries to remain intact. The books and the various subjects they cover—including history, politics, travel, gardening, government—are interesting in their own right. But Adams’ habit of annotating his books makes them additionally fascinating and important. With these notes, readers get a peek into his mind and his times.

Community Resource
In addition to the presidential collection, the Rare Books room also houses numerous other treasures. Some of the items you can find there include the death mask of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison; death masks and documents and books about Italian anarchists and convicted murderers Sacco and Vanzetti; a leaf from the Gutenberg Bible; records from Boston town meetings from 1634-1822; and the collection of over 500 atlases and 2,300 maps dating from 1634 to the mid-nineteenth century.

Some items in the Rare Book room are catalogued in the online catalogue (search for your topic and
limit to “BPL Central—Rare Books”) and others can be located by speaking to a librarian. Many other
topics are covered by various other special collections in the library, housed in other departments, such as the Print Department, Microtext, Fine Arts, and Special Collections. The library makes a wide variety of audio and video files available as digital files for downloading. PC users (not currently available for the Mac or iPod) can download the required software and check out books, videos, or music online. Additionally, there is a terminal in the Johnson building that you can use to download files. When the loan period expires, the files are automatically “returned” to the library and you can delete the expired file from your computer. Many electronic databases are available online and accessible from any computer for library card holders. Other databases can be used only in the library, on a library computer. The information you will find on the databases varies, but includes citations and full text of articles in magazines, journals, and newspapers (including current issues of the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald), the Oxford English Dictionary, biographical indexes, historical government documents, a Russian reference database, and various image databases. Something of interest to many Bostonians is the Boston Architecture Reference File in the Fine Arts department. This resource is an index of architectural plans, illustrations, and some written materials about Boston buildings and their architects. If you live in Boston, you may find drawings of your building and other relevant documents. In fact, many use this resource when renovating a building or condo.

This is just a sample of the tremendous breadth and depth of resources available in the Boston Public Library and the McKim building. As citizens of Boston, this treasure is ours to use and enjoy. Think back to all those who built this library—the legislature that funded its construction, the trustees who shaped the vision, the architect who designed part of his legacy, the stonemasons, carpenters, woodworkers, and artists whose calloused hands built this library stone by stone, paint stroke by paint stroke and who left their fingerprints here for us to see.

Listings associated with this Feature:

Boston Public Library - Central

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