Grand Staircase, Boston Public Library (3)

The hallway at the top of the grand staircase at the McKim Building, in 1896. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

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The scene in 2016:

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Designed like a Venetian arcade, this hallway connects the grand staircase on the left side with Bates Hall, the library’s main reading room, on the right side. Like the rest of the area around the staircase, this hallway was decorated with a mural by French artist Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. When the first photo was taken, the poetry murals on the left side had not yet been added, but the large mural on the right had already been installed. It features the nine Muses who, in Greek mythology, provided inspiration for literature, science, and art, and the entire work was collectively given the title of “The Muses of Inspiration Hail the Spirit, the Harbinger of Light.”

The first photo was taken before all of the finishing touches, such as the murals on the left and the light fixtures, were added. Otherwise, very little has changed here, and this scene, along with the rest of the building, still retains the splendor that it had when it first opened over 120 years ago. As mentioned in earlier posts, the building was the combined effort of architect Charles McKim and many prominent artists, and it set the standard for public libraries that was later followed in places like New York City.

Grand Staircase, Boston Public Library (2)

Another view of the grand staircase at the McKim Building, around 1901. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The staircase in 2016:

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The previous post shows this same staircase from the opposite side. Each side has a lion statue by Louis Saint-Gaudens, the younger brother of prominent sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who also did work here at the Boston Public Library. As mentioned in the previous post, the staircase also includes nine murals by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, with the title of “The Muses of Inspiration Hail the Spirit, the Harbinger of Light.” The three panels here focus on poetry and feature three ancient Greek poets, with Virgil on the left representing pastoral poetry, Aeschylus in the middle for dramatic poetry, and Homer on the right for epic poetry. Not much has changed here since the first photo was taken, although the lamp has moved from the corner on the left side in the first photo to the right side in the 2016 view.

Grand Staircase, Boston Public Library

The grand staircase at the McKim Building, around 1901. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The staircase in 2016:

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The main branch of the Boston Public Library is a work of art. With the architecture of Charles McKim, the sculptures of Augustus and Louis Saint-Gaudens, and murals by Edwin Austin Abbey, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, and John Singer Sargent, the building combines the work of some of the world’s finest visual artists of the late 19th century. This marble staircase is one of the centerpieces of the building, which was completed in 1895. Years before the New York Public Library had its iconic lion statues, the Boston Public Library had its two lions here, which were sculpted by Louis Saint-Gaudens. The one in this view is a memorial to the 20th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry from the Civil War, and the one on the other side of the staircase is for the 2nd Regiment.

Along with the lion sculptures, the grand staircase features nine murals by French artist Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, entitled “The Muses of Inspiration Hail the Spirit, the Harbinger of Light.” The three murals visible here are, from left to right: Philosophy, Astronomy, and History. In the 2016 photo, the Philosophy one has been temporarily removed. Earlier this year, it was discovered that moisture damage was causing paint to flake off of the canvas, so the mural is currently undergoing restoration. Otherwise, nothing else has changed in this scene over the past 115 years, with the grand staircase remaining as impressive as it was when the building was first opened to the public.

Bates Hall, Boston Public Library (3)

The marble doorway in Bates Hall at the McKim Building, in 1896. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

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The view in 2016:

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As mentioned in the previous two posts here and here, Bates Hall is the main reading room at the Boston Public Library, and the first photo here shows the room shortly after the building opened. Architect Charles McKim designed the building in the Renaissance Revival style, with features such as this carved marble doorway, with the balcony above it. The two marble busts that flank the doorway are the same in both photos, although at some point in the past 120 years they were moved to opposite sides of the doorway. They are actually several decades older than the building itself; the one on the left in the 2016 photo is of Joshua Bates, the hall’s namesake, and the one on the right is of Boston author George Ticknor. Not much else has changed here, except for newer books on the shelves and different chairs, and the room remains one of Boston’s architectural treasures.

Bates Hall, Boston Public Library (2)

Another view of Bates Hall in the McKim Building, around 1895. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

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Bates Hall in 2016:

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Like the previous post, these photos show Bates Hall, the main reading room at the Boston Public Library, as it appeared when it first opened in 1895 and in 2016. The view in the other post was from the opposite side of the room, but both angles give an idea of the size of this room, which runs the entire length of the building and has a 50-foot tall, cathedral-like vaulted ceiling and massive windows on the Copley Square side. The only difference here in these two photos is that the first photo has no people or books, so presumably it was taken in the weeks or months before the building was completed and opened to the public, perhaps to give Bostonians an idea of what their unprecedented new library would look like.

Bates Hall, Boston Public Library

Bates Hall inside the McKim Building of the Boston Public Library in 1896. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

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Bates Hall in 2016:

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The historic McKim Building opened in 1895 as the main branch of the Boston Public Library, and it is an architecturally significant building on both the exterior and interior. Bates Hall, which is 218 feet long and 50 feet to the top of the arched ceiling, is the library’s main reading room. It is named in honor of Joshua Bates, who donated $50,000 to the library shortly after it was established in 1852. Equivalent to nearly $1.5 million today, this gift helped to purchase books for the new library, which was one of the first public libraries in the country. The first photo was taken only a year after the building opened, but today, after a major restoration that was started in 1996, the room looks just as grand as it did 120 years ago.