McKim Building 125th Anniversary

Fact Sheet

MEDIA CONTACT: Lisa Pollack | 617.859.2319 | |

Historical Background

  • 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

Dignitary Quotes

“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

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

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.