A palace for the people

When the first stone for the new public library was laid in 1888, Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “This palace is the people’s own.”

The architect, Charles Follen McKim, and patrons recruited some of the greatest craftspeople, painters and sculptors of the 19th century to create this masterpiece, the Boston Public Central Library.

There is a (free) public architecture tour that I joined of the library. As I walked around, admiring the library and taking photos whilst listening to the guide, I wondered: the effort, expense, and artistry that’s gone into this building was something that previously would have been confined to grand cathedrals of the world. How wonderful that, at a point in our history, people decided that they were going to create something so majestic for the public in the form of a humble library. Right at the front above the arch is the library’s motto: FREE TO ALL.

One of the greatest muralists of the 19th century was French painter Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. The creators wanted him to paint a mural for the library. However, Puvis was not keen to travel abroad. Instead, the patrons agreed for him to create the work in France. They provided a sample of the staircase’s Siena marble so that Puvis could seamlessly integrate his mural into the surroundings. Once complete, the mural was shipped to Boston and re-constructed.

American artist John Singer Sargent spent 29 years creating the Sargent Gallery on the third floor. He painted the murals in England and, at four stages, travelled to Boston to install them. The work, a religious piece called the Triumph of Religion, became embroiled in controversy when one of the panels seemed to be critical of Judaism (Sargent said it was unintentional). The final central panel was never completed and remains blank today.

The final controversy was over the bronze statue in the courtyard. The figure is nude (implying debauchery), holding grapes (drink!), and holding an infant (corrupting the young). Such was the outcry that the statue was eventually moved to the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York. In the 1990s, the city commissioned a copy and the replica now stands in the courtyard.

The old Central Library, called the McKim building, is similar to the British Library: it’s used for studying and research. The adjoining lending library was built in the 1960s. Called the Johnson building, it is a sympathetic extension of the McKim building by Philip Johnson, an architect who greatly admired McKim.

Both buildings have been renovated over the past twenty years.

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