Classical Revival 1885-1920

A remarkable array of forces led to the rise of the Classical Revival movement in Boston at the end of the nineteenth century.

Starting in the 1840s, the city had experienced dramatic growth and cultural transformation as Italian, Irish, and other immigrants filled the city, and came to represent almost 90% of the population by 1900. In parallel, by the late 1800s, an explosion of new arts, academic, and medical institutions called for new museums, music halls, campus buildings, and hospitals. To mention just a few: the Boston Public Library, the Museum of Fine Arts, five museums at Harvard, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the New England Conservatory, the MIT campus in Cambridge, and Harvard Medical School & Children’s Hospital in Longwood all were founded in this period.

The city’s rapid growth had unleashed a wealth of architectural styles, particularly in the Back Bay, which “seemed charming and individualistic... at the height of the Queen Anne mode in the 1870s” but was increasingly perceived by the 1880s as “fussy and strident, even degenerate” (Shand-Tucci). In this context, McKim’s 1888 design for the Boston Public Library in Copley Square was a revelation of order and refinement. It helped set a new direction not just in Boston but also for the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where a temporary “White City” of 200 neoclassical buildings was seen by 27 million visitors and sparked a national revival over the following decades.

Perhaps in an echo to its earlier Greek Revival, Boston soon embraced the Classical Revival with its aspirations to early democratic ideals, as the style that would unite these new institutions and restore the city’s grandeur. By the 1920s, monumental buildings faced with tall colonnades of classical Corinthian, Doric or Ionic columns, topped by classical triangular pediments could be seen in all corners of town. As it required less technical sophistication than the Beaux Arts styles, Classical Revival was soon applied broadly in courthouses, banks, churches, schools and mansions.

Sources: “Built in Boston,” Shand-Tucci, 1999; Wikipedia.Image: Museum of Fine Arts, ©Yonward, 2017