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- In his dedication poem for the cornerstone laying ceremony for the Boston Public Library’s (BPL) McKim Building (1888), Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “This palace is the people’s own.”
- On March 11, 1895, the McKim Building in Copley Square opened to the public.
- Above the main entrance on Dartmouth St., the inscription “Free to All” proclaimed the perpetual intent to welcome everyone to access the Library’s vast resources at no charge.
- The engraving beneath the cornice, “The Commonwealth Requires the Education of the People as the Safeguard of Order and Liberty,” further recalls the institution’s purpose, as true today as ever.
- The building is considered an architectural masterpiece.
- Over time, Holmes’ expression morphed and, for many years now, the building has been referred to as a “palace for the people.”
"Then & Now" Animated GIFs
“Libraries reflect the identity, culture, and history of our city,” said Mayor Martin J. Walsh. “The McKim Building is a perfect example of this and each BPL branch is a great source of pride for my administration. That’s why, citywide, we’re making the largest investment in libraries in decades. From immigration support to the Central Library’s InnoLAB for video, music, and podcast production to free Wi-Fi, the BPL offers crucial services that Bostonians rely on.”
“We are dedicated to preserving and upholding all that the McKim Building has represented throughout its 125-year history — the grandeur of its architecture and art alongside the promise of the free resources and opportunities it provides to all,” said BPL President David Leonard. “This ‘palace for the people,’ combined with the recently renovated Johnson Building, comprise the heart and soul of the Central Library and make manifest that the wonder of education can be driven by the wonder of its surroundings.”
Vintage Library Cards
- The BPL’s “vintage” library card design features the iconic lanterns at the Library’s Dartmouth Street entrance.
- The classic grey “lantern card” is so popular that patrons have been known to cling to them like a badge of honor, sometimes refusing to switch to newer designs.
- On March 11, 2020 — the 125th anniversary of the McKim Building’s formal opening to the public — the BPL will launch a limited run of the vintage library cards.
- BPL patrons will be welcome to obtain these limited edition cards while they last.
- Existing patrons will be charged the nominal one-dollar replacement card fee to exchange their current cards.
Highlighting a Masterwork: Sargent Centennial Celebration
- As part of the McKim Building’s 125th anniversary celebration, the BPL has timed a centennial celebration of John Singer Sargent’s masterwork mural cycle, “Triumph of Religion,” to coincide.
- Adorning the Sargent gallery, the murals were restored in 2003 and 2004.
- The provocative compositions are among the most popular artistic attractions within the Central Library.
- After 29 years of work (1890 - 1919), Sargent died suddenly in 1925, leaving the mural cycle
- Sargent intended for the last panel in the cycle to represent the Sermon on the Mount.
- This spring, Sargent’s original oil and graphite sketches for the final piece — part of the BPL’s Special Collections — will be projected on the final blank panel along with interpretation and other images.
- Additional celebratory happenings include:
- A series of three lectures and an evening of music
- Spotlight talks by BPL Art & Architecture guides
- Pop-up musical performances in and around the Sargent Gallery
- A BPL website blog series exploring the history of Sargent’s contract with the Library; conservation challenges; and a cigar alleged to have been Sargent’s, unearthed 80 years later.
New Art & Architecture Brochure
- To highlight the 125th anniversary of the McKim Building, a new brochure about the art and architecture of the Central Library will be released this spring and made available for free to visitors.
- The brochure is funded by Bank of America and the Boston Public Library Fund and curated by BPL Curator of Interpretation Meghan Weeks.
- It will contain brand-new photography of the Library along with descriptions of celebrated features, including:
- The façade and courtyard for which architect Charles Follen McKim drew inspiration from the elegant Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève in Paris and the Palazzo della Cancelleria in Rome.
- Notable works by renowned painters, sculptors, and craftsman of the 19th and 20th centuries, such as three major mural cycles:
- Edwin Austin Abbey’s depiction of Sir Galahad's Quest for the Holy Grail, his first mural cycle ever;
- Pierre Puvis de Chavannes’ “Muses of Inspiration” and eight panels depicting branches of learning, his only mural works outside France; and
- John Singer Sargent’s “Triumph of Religion,” his first major mural cycle, considered his masterwork.
- Rafael Guastavino’s tile-vault ceilings, which represent the Spanish immigrant’s first major public commission in the U.S. His studio later worked on more than 600 buildings across the country.
- The beloved grand staircase lions by Louis Saint-Gaudens, which are dedicated to Civil War soldiers from the 2nd and the 20th Massachusetts volunteer regiments and whose tails patrons rub for good luck.
- The controversial “Bacchante and Infant Faun” sculpture by Frederick MacMonnies, which stands in the fountain at the center of the courtyard’s open-air, white marble plaza.
- The “Science” and “Art” allegorical statues by Bela Pratt that frame the Dartmouth Street entrance and represent an essential balance to all educational pursuits.
Reimagining an Architectural Treasure
- Under the guidance of Mayor Walsh, the City of Boston recently released a Request for Qualifications, kicking off a new updated master planning process for the McKim Building.
- The first phases of restoration were completed in the 1990s and early 2000s, but a significant portion of the building remains closed to public access today.
- The goal of the McKim master plan is to envision how to return these 125-year old spaces to public use in a way that ensures that this “palace for the people” continues to serve its patrons well into the next centuries and functions as a more than worthy companion to the dynamic and innovative Johnson Building.
McKim Building Images
- McKim "Now & Then" animated GIFs (136.2 MB ZIP)
- Present-day Art & Architecture images (202.5 MB ZIP)
Historical/construction images in Digital Commonwealth
- Workmen laying the cornerstone, construction of the McKim Building
- Cornerstone ceremony, construction of the McKim Building
- The laying of the cornerstone, construction of the McKim Building
- Rafael Guastavino stands on recently laid tile arch along Boylston Street, construction of the McKim Building
- Bates Hall construction looking north, construction of the McKim Building
- View of Dartmouth and Boylston St. corner (through Old South Church arch), showing Bates Hall window with grill work, construction of the McKim Building
- Boston Public Library. Copley Square. Upper hallway, before installation of Puvis de Chavannes murals
- Marble arch over grand staircase, construction of the McKim Building
- Upper Hallway, before installation of Puvis de Chavannes murals (also grand staircase & lions below)
- Facade showing installed cornice, Boylston and Dartmouth St corner, construction of the McKim Building
- Construction at the corner of Dartmouth and Boylston Streets, construction of the McKim Building
- View of Blagden St. side and courtyard construction, construction of the McKim Building
- View of Dartmouth Street front from the S.S. Pierce Building, construction of the McKim Building
- Dartmouth Street Facade, construction of the McKim Building
- Bates Hall windows (exterior/façade), construction of the McKim Building
- Dartmouth St. and Boylston St. sides, construction of the McKim Building
- Dartmouth St. Facade with wrought iron lamps and grillwork in place, McKim building
- East wall of courtyard showing girder being raised, construction of the McKim Building
- East wall of Courtyard, construction of the McKim Building
- Courtyard looking south, construction of the McKim Building
- McKim Historic-Construction Photos - All
About The Boston Public Library
The Boston Public Library provides educational, cultural, and civic enrichment free to all through its collections, services, programs, and spaces. Established in 1848, the Boston Public Library is a pioneer of public library service in America. It was the first large free municipal library in the United States, the first public library to lend books, the first to have a branch library, and the first to have a children’s room.
The Boston Public Library of today encompasses the Central Library in Copley Square, which includes the newly-renovated and vibrant Johnson Building, 25 branches, the Norman B. Leventhal Map and Education Center, the Kirstein Business and Innovation Center, and an archival center. The Library provides access to world-class special collections of rare books, manuscripts, photographs, and prints, along with rich digital content and online services. BPL hosts thousands of free educational programs and exhibitions, and provides free library services online and in-person to millions of people each year.