American architects started to attend the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris in the 1850s, with Harvard alumnus H. H. Richardson the second to make the pilgrimage (after Richard Morris Hunt). The impact of Beaux-Arts philosophy on Boston’s architecture emerged in the 1880s, and remains evident in many major buildings and spaces across the city.
Characteristics of the style start with attention to site and context - vistas punctuated by symmetry, eye-catching monuments, axial avenues - and result in a harmonious, somewhat theatrical presence. In 1893, MIT became the first American university to institute a Beaux-Arts curriculum, and MIT and Beaux-Arts alumnus William Bosworth employed the style in his design of the Institute’s new Cambridge campus in 1916. While it’s more difficult to see now that trees have grown tall along Memorial Drive, the Bosworth buildings at M.I.T. were conceived with a strong formal orientation from the central dome and open courtyard toward Boston across the river.
Generally built in Boston of smooth grey granite, Beaux-Arts buildings feature symmetrical massing, a rusticated and raised first story, the hierarchical arrangement of spaces (from the grand to the utilitarian), and a visually flat roof with prominent cornice . Classical details, including statuary, sculpture, murals, mosaics, and other artwork, and eclectic but coordinated historical references complete the effect. Many buildings of this period served civic or community functions – libraries, government offices, art museums – and their classical forms were intended to channel the civic-minded nature of ancient Greek conceptions of community and architecture. McKim, Mead & White's Boston Public Library is one of the most iconic examples of the style in Boston, if not in the entire country.
Image: Boston Public Library, ©Yonward