Boston Public Library, McKim Building

Boston Public Library, McKim Building

McKim, Mead, and White, 1887–1895

National Historic Landmark

The Boston Public Library was founded in 1848 by an act of the Massachusetts Legislature. Opened in 1854, it was the first large city library for the general public in the United States. It left its original building on Boylston Street opposite the Common for this imposing Copley Square landmark.

Charles Follen McKim had attended Harvard and apprenticed under H. H. Richardson in Boston. Later he married into the Boston Appleton family. These Boston connections certainly helped him secure the commission, but the crucial factor was that a library trustee much admired the Villard houses he had designed in New York. His Renaissance revival design for the library was a sharp change of direction for American architecture and remained influential for the next forty years. It stirred considerable comment, not all of it positive. The Boston Globe compared it to the city morgue, while another critic termed it a warehouse.

In fact, it is an Italian Renaissance palazzo, influenced strongly by both Alberti’s San Francesco at Rimini and Labrouste’s Bibliotheque Saint Genevieve (1843–1850) in Paris. A row of equally spaced arched windows rise above the rusticated ground floor with three entry arches graced by fine iron gates and swooping lanterns. The handsome bronze doors are by sculptor Daniel Chester French and represent Music and Poetry, Knowledge and Wisdom, and Truth and Romance. The building effectively integrates sculpture, painting, architecture, and engineering.

Interior space is organized about the grand staircase and entrance hall of beautiful Monte Riete, or Convent Siena, marble, a material difficult to obtain. Murals around the staircase and the second-floor corridor are by Puvis de Chavannes of Paris. The tile vaults on the ground floor, the first extensive use of tile vaulting in the country, are by the Guastavino firm of New York and Boston.

Bates Hall, the grand reading room—217 feet long, 42 feet wide, and 50 feet high—runs along the entire front of the second floor and has a barrel-vaulted ceiling terminating in coffered apses. The hall is named after Joshua Bates, the library’s first great benefactor. In the book delivery room is Edwin Austin Abbey’s 1895 Pre-Raphaelite mural, The Quest and Achievement of the Holy Grail. At the opposite end of the corridor is the Elliott Room, with the ceiling painting The Triumph of Time by Boston artist John Elliott. At each end of the Chavannes Gallery are the Venetian and Pompeian lobbies, which lead to the delivery room and Elliott Room. Ascending the staircase to the third floor one reaches the Sargent Gallery, named for John Singer Sargent, who decorated it with his murals Judaism and Christianity.

One of the most dazzling features of the library is the inner Italian courtyard, based on the Cancelleria Palace in Rome.