A Walking Tour of the McKim Building

Art and Architecture Descriptions

The McKim Building is notable for its perfect proportions, its classic serenity, its modestly borne and elegance. Its charm lies not only in the immediate effect of its features - its Copley Square façade, the Entrance Hall, the Courtyard, the Bates Hall Reading Room, the Sargent Gallery - but in the details that everywhere make the building a constant source of surprise and aesthetic satisfaction.

Exterior Details

A strong impression of the façade is likely to remain in the mind’s eye - the sloping red tile roof with its green copper cresting, the magnificent arched windows, the triple-arched main entrance and its cluster of branching wrought-iron lanterns. Closer inspection reveals the tablets beneath the window arches, inscribed with the names of the great masters of art, science, religion and statesmanship; the medallions representing trade devices of early printers and booksellers in the spandrels of the window arches, skillfully executed by Domingo Mora; the head of Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, carved in the central keystone by Mora and Augustus Saint-Gaudens; and, sculpted in granite over the three entrance arches, the seals of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the Library, and the City of Boston, by Saint-Gaudens.

The two large statues on the platforms in front of the Library represent Art and Science. These were sculpted by the Boston artist Bela Pratt and were set in place in 1912.

The Vestibule

The floors, walls, and vaulted ceiling are of pink Knoxville marble; the floor is inlaid with patterns of brown Knoxville and Levanto marble. The bronze statue to the left as one enters is a representation of Sir Harry Vane, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1636 and 1637, by Frederic MacMonnies.

When entering the vestibule, the visitor faces three sets of bronze doors created by Daniel Chester French and commissioned specifically for the Library. Each door weighs 1500 pounds. The allegorical figures, modeled in low relief, represent Music and Poetry (left), Knowledge and Wisdom (center), and Truth and Romance (right).

The Entrance Hall

The low, broad entrance hall, divided into three aisles by heavy piers of Iowa sandstone, is of Roman design. The ceiling is vaulted, with domes in the side bays, and is covered with a marble mosaic. The thirty names lettered in the ceiling are of famous Bostonians. The floor is of white Georgia marble and is inlaid in the center aisle with brass inscriptions and symbols of the zodiac.

The Main Staircase

Connecting the Entrance Hall with the main staircase is a deep triumphal arch. The marble of the steps is ivory gray Echaillon, mottled with fossil shells; that of the walls is a richly variegated yellow Siena.

The great twin lions, couchant, on pedestals at the turn of the stairs are of unpolished Siena marble and are the work of Louis Saint-Gaudens. They are memorials to Massachusetts Civil War infantry regiments, the Second and the Twentieth. The handsome coffered ceiling is of plaster.

Puvis de Chavannes Gallery

The second floor corridor is known as the Puvis de Chavannes Gallery after the French artist whose mural paintings decorate the corridor and the upper portion of the Main Stair Hall.

The Gallery is separated from the main staircase by an arcade of five arches supported by graceful columns resting on the posts of a low parapet directly over the stairwell. Like the staircase the arcade is of yellow Siena marble.

Mural Paintings

Covering the entire gallery wall to the left and right of the arched vestibule leading into Bates Hall is Puvis de Chavannes’ major composition The Muses. Here the nine muses of Greek mythology are seen hailing a male figure representing the Genius of Enlightenment amidst the setting of a grove of olive and laurel.

The Abbey Room

Of particular interest to many visitors is the sumptuous Abbey Room, which may be entered from the south end of the Chavannes Gallery. The room’s dominating feature is the series of splendid and richly colored mural paintings The Quest of the Holy Grail by the American artist, Edwin Austin Abbey. The room, 64 feet long by 33 feet wide, is of luxurious beauty. The ceiling is remarkable for its heavy ornamental rafters.

The heavy marble doorways leading into Bates Hall and from the Chavannes Gallery are of rouge antique and Levanto marble. The mantle of the great fireplace in the east wall - wholly of rouge antique - is exceedingly rich and elaborate. The walls are wainscoted in dark-colored oak to the level of the murals, and the floors are of Istrian and red Verona marble.

The Gallery Lobbies

The lobbies at the two ends of the Chavannes Gallery are of interest for their decorative schemes. Pompeian red is the dominant note at the south end, and the decorative elements - masks, torches, sea horses, a lyre and floral designs suggest Pompeii. The Venetian Lobby at the other end includes the domed central portion, the window alcove (with sea green and sky blue as the chief colors), and the entrance to the staircase to the Sargent Gallery. The block of stone over the entrance to the Study Room bears a carving of the traditional Lion of St. Mark. It is from the sixteenth century and was brought from Venice, probably from an ancient palace.

The wall painting in the lunette over the alcove window represents the marriage of Venice with the Adriatic Sea. In the niche to the left, the names in gilt are those of the famous doges of Venice; those in the opposite niche are of celebrated Venetian painters.

Decorations of the domes of the corridor and of the staircase suggest the glory of Venice at the height of her power. Around the lower circumference of the dome in the corridor is depicted a line of galleys and the eleven cities which at one time or another were subjects of Venice. In the gilded dome of the staircase leading to the Sargent Gallery are the Byzantine symbols and the names of Eastern Mediterranean possessions of Venice.

Elliott Room

Opening from the Venetian Lobby is the study room. Unlike the Abbey Room, to which it corresponds in position and dimensions, this room is quite starkly plain, with little attempt at decorations. One passes halfway through it through a door in its west wall into the Elliott Room. This room, finely proportioned, lined with bookcases, takes its name from the ceiling decoration, The Triumph of Time by the Boston artist John Elliott.

Bates Hall

This magnificent room is named for the Library’s first great benefactor - Joshua Bates (1788-1864). Occupying the whole front of the building on the second floor level and lighted by high arched windows, it is 218 long, 42 feet wide, and 50 feet high, to the crown of its barrel vaulted ceiling.

Sargent Gallery

This long, high gallery is named for the great American painter John Singer Sargent, who spent years decorating its walls with his powerful and original mural sequence, Triumph of Religion. The gallery is reached from the Venetian Lobby by a long straight flight of stairs, open to the hall above, leading between the wall of Bates Hall and the Chavannes Gallery. It is 84 feet long, 23 feet wide, and 26 feet high. The dark sandstone of the walls and the balustrade of the stairway, and the absence of windows give the gallery a rather somber appearance.

Wiggin Gallery

At the south end of the Sargent Gallery is the entrance to the Albert H. Wiggin Gallery. Originally devoted to special collections, this large, admirably proportioned room was given over to the exhibiting of prints in 1941 when Mr. Wiggin, a Boston born New York financier, gave the Library his collection of prints and drawings. The print collection, developed steadily since that time, is exceptionally strong in the works of American and European artists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Features of this room are the handsome central dome with molded plaster ornamentation in leaf and berry patterns; the polished terrazzo floor; and the pair of high arched windows that look out on the courtyard.

The Courtyard

Next to the quiet grandeur of the Main Staircase, the McKim Building’s deep interior courtyard delights and charms the visitor. It is a haven of peace and beauty rarely found in a public building.

The wall of the main staircase projects well into the courtyard. Along the other three walls rounds an arcaded promenade which is an almost exact facsimile of the arcade of the Cancelleria Palace in Rome. Frederick MacMonnies' Bacchante and Infant Faun, is the bronze cast fountain statue.

Art and Architectural Tours of the Boston Public Library

If this brief description of the McKim Building has whetted your appetite, you may enjoy taking a free one-hour tour.

Lion statue from stairway