Sargent Gallery, Boston Public Library (3)

The Sargent Gallery in the Boston Public Library’s McKim Building in 1896. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

The scene in 2021:

As explained in more detail in an earlier post, this gallery on the third floor of the McKim Building features a mural by prominent artist John Singer Sargent. Titled Triumph of Religion, the mural features scenes relating to Christianity, Judaism, and other ancient religions of the Near East. It was a long-term project for Sargent, who completed the mural panels in stages between 1895 and 1919.

The first photo was taken in 1896, shortly after the first installation of panels. Starting on the ceiling in the distance is Pagan Gods, featuring the goddess Astarte and the god Moloch. The large lunette at the top of the north wall in the distance is Israelites Oppressed, showing the enslavement of the Israelites by the Egyptians and the forced exile of the Israelites by the Assyrians. Beneath this panel is Frieze of Prophets, a three-panel set that depicts the various Old Testament prophets.

Over the next few decades, Sargent would add more panels to the gallery. This process is explained in more detail in the previous post, but it involved installing panels on the south wall in 1903, followed by the lunettes at the tops of the side walls in 1916. The last installation occurred in 1919, with the addition of Church in the foreground on the right side of the second photo, and Synagogue further in the distance on the right. In between these is a large blank space on the wall, where Sargent had intended to put the final panel, Sermon on the Mount. However, he died in 1925, before its completion, and the space has remained empty ever since.

Sargent Gallery, Boston Public Library (2)

A view of the murals in the Sargent Gallery on the third floor of the Boston Public Library’s McKim Building, around 1916-1919. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

The scene in 2021:

These two photos show the view in the Sargent Gallery facing in the opposite direction from the previous post. The photos in that post show the original portion of John Singer Sargent’s mural Triumph of Religion, which was installed here in 1896. The rest of the panels were added over the next few decades, between 1903 and 1919.

Unlike the panels from 1896, which featured images related to the Old Testament and other religions of the ancient Near East, most of the subsequent panels focused on the New Testament. On the far side of the room, in the distant center of this scene, are two panels that were installed in 1903. The lunette panel depicts the Trinity, and it also has a crucifix with Adam on one side of it and Eve on the other. Beneath this panel is a rectangular one depicting eight angels.

The next installation occurred in 1916, shortly before the first photo was taken. This included the panel on the ceiling in the distance, titled Fifteen Mysteries of the Rosary, and two smaller panels beneath it on the walls: Handmaid of the Lord on the left, and Madonna of Sorrows on the right. The 1916 installation also included six lunette panels at the tops of the walls, with three on each side. On the left side is Fall of Gog and Magog, which is mostly out of view in these photos, followed by Israel and the Law in the center and Messianic Era in the distance. On the right side, starting in the foreground, is Hell, Judgment, and The Passing of Souls into Heaven.

The first photo was taken after the 1916 installation but prior to 1919, when Sargent added two more photos. One of these, just out of view on the far left in the 2021 photo, is Synagogue, and further in the distance on the left is Church. However, Sargent never finished the entire mural project. His intent had been to paint one final panel, depicting the Sermon on the Mount. It would have gone above the stairs, on the left side of the scene, but he died in 1925 before it was completed. The intended space here in the gallery has remained empty ever since, as seen on the left side of the 2021 photo.

Today, aside from the panels that were added in 1919, the only noticeable changes from the first photo are the floor lamps on the left and the railings on the steps to the right. Sargent’s mural underwent a major restoration from 2003 to 2004, and the gallery remains one of the most distinctive features of the McKim Building, which is renowned for both its architecture and its artwork

Sargent Gallery, Boston Public Library

A view of the murals in the Sargent Gallery on the third floor of the Boston Public Library’s McKim Building, around 1896. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

The scene in 2021:

This building serves as the main branch of the Boston Public Library, and it is also an important architectural and artistic landmark, both on the exterior and interior. The building itself was designed by Charles Follen McKim, a prominent architect of the firm of McKim, Mead & White, but he also worked with a number of other leading artists of the period. Sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens carved the seals above the main entrance, and his brother Louis carved two lions at the base of the grand staircase. Other sculptural works included the bronze statue Bacchante and Infant Faun, by Frederick William MacMonnies, which originally stood in the courtyard before being moved to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In addition, the interior includes murals by three major artists: Pierre Puvis de Chavannes in the grand staircase, Edwin Austin Abbey in the book delivery room, and John Singer Sargent, here on the third floor.

Sargent was born in Italy in 1856, but his parents were originally from Massachusetts. He studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and by the late 19th century he had become one of the leading portrait painters of the Gilded Age. For this mural at the Boston Public Library, McKim gave him discretion over the theme, and Sargent chose Triumph of Religion, with images that focused on the history of Christianity and Judaism, along with other ancient Near East religions. This became a long-term project, with sections of the mural being installed in four different stages between 1895 and 1916.

The mural panels in this scene, located on the northern end of the gallery, were part of the original 1896 installation, and the first photo was taken the following year. The panel on the ceiling is titled Pagan Gods, and it features the goddess Astarte on the right side, and the god Moloch on the left. Beneath them, on the top of the north wall, is Israelites Oppressed, which depicts the Israelites being attacked by an Egyptian pharaoh on the left and an Assyrian king on the right. This represents the enslavement of the Israelites by the Egyptians, along with the conquest and forced exile of the Israelites by the Assyrian empire. The last three panels, which are located directly above the doors, feature various Old Testament prophets. From left to right, the panel on the left depicts Zephaniah, Joel, Obadiah, and Hosea; the panel on right depicts Micah, Haggai, Malachi, and Zechariah; and the central panel depicts Amos, Nahum, Ezekiel, Daniel, Elijah, Moses, Joshua, Jeremiah, Jonah, Isaiah, and Habakkuk.

The rest of the panels are not visible in this view of the gallery, but they were installed in 1903, 1916, and 1919. The final panel in the project was never completed because of Sargent’s death in 1926, and that space on the wall in the gallery remains blank. Overall, this particular view here at the north end of the gallery has changed very little since the first photo was taken over 125 years ago. The mural was extensively restored in 2003 and 2004, and this space is now known as the Sargent Gallery, in honor of the artist.

Alexander Hamilton Statue, Boston

The statue of Alexander Hamilton, located on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall between Arlington and Berkeley Streets, around 1865-1885. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

The statue in 2021:

These two photos show the statue of Alexander Hamilton on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall in Boston. It was the work of artist William Rimmer, and it was commissioned by Thomas Lee, who presented it to the city of Boston as a gift. The statue stands nine feet, four inches tall, and it was carved out of Concord granite. It stands on a base of blue Quincy granite, which also includes a granite plaque featuring profiles of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay.

The statue was unveiled here on August 24, 1865. The public reception was somewhat mixed, with some criticizing the use of granite rather than more conventional materials such as bronze, while others criticized the design itself. Contemporary sculptor Truman Howe Bartlett called it “the indifferent work of a genius, not the consistent labor of talent,” and art critic George B. Woods observed that Hamilton seemed to be “swathed like an infant or a mummy.” Nonetheless, other such as the statue’s benefactor, Thomas Lee, appreciated the design, and the harsh criticism of the statue seemed to soften over time.

Today, the statue still stands here more than 150 years after it was installed. Its surroundings have also seen few changes over the years, and most of the houses from the first photo are still standing today, although they are largely hidden by the trees. Overall, the Back Bay remains a well-preserved example of late 19th century residential architecture, and the tree-lined Commonwealth Avenue Mall is a major centerpiece of the neighborhood.

Soldiers and Sailors Monument, Boston

The Soldiers and Sailors Monument on Boston Common, around 1890-1901. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The monument in 2021:

This monument stands on Boston Common, and it was dedicated in 1877 in honor of the soldiers and sailors from Boston who fought for the Union during the Civil War. Nearly every town or city in New England has some kind of Civil War monument for its residents, but this one in Boston is particularly grand. It rises 126 feet in height, and it features five bronze statues, four bronze bas relief plaques, and a variety of other carvings and sculptures. It was the work of prominent Boston sculptor Martin Milmore, whose other noteworthy Civil War monuments include the Sphinx in Mount Auburn Cemetery.

The design of the monument was based on ancient Roman victory columns. On the lower part of the column are carvings of four allegorical figures, representing north, south, east, and west, and symbolizing the reunification of the country. On the top of the column is a larger-than-life bronze statue representing America, with the flag in her left hand and a sheathed sword and laurel wreath on her right hand, symbolizing peace and victory.

Near the base of the monument are four bronze statues, each nine feet in height. Two are male figures and two are female, and they represent the Army, the Navy, Peace, and History. From the angle of these two photos, the two statues in the foreground are Peace on the left and Navy on the right. The statue of a soldier, representing Army, is barely visible on the left side, and the History statue is hidden from view in this scene. In between the statues are four bronze bas reliefs, each depicting a scene related to the war. One shows soldiers departing for the war, another shows them returning, and the other two commemorate the Navy and the Sanitary Commission.

The statue was dedicated on September 17, 1877, on the fifteenth anniversary of the Battle of Antietam. It was a major event, drawing Civil War veterans from across the state, along with many prominent dignitaries, including Generals George B. McClellan and Joseph Hooker. The day’s festivities began with a long procession to the Common, where the Colt’s Armory Band opened the ceremony with a hymn. The sculptor, Martin Milmore, then delivered brief remarks and presented the monument to the city. He was followed by Alderman Francis Thompson and Mayor Frederick Prince, who each gave an address. Next was the keynote speech, delivered by General Charles Devens, a Massachusetts native and Civil War general who was, by this point, serving in the Cabinet as the US Attorney General.

The first photo was taken several decades after the monument was installed here, at a time when many of the city’s Civil War veterans were still alive. Today, more than a century later, the city has undergone significant transformations, but this scene has remained essentially unchanged. The monument looks as good now as it did in the first photo, largely because of a major restoration that was completed in 2014. This project included cleaning and repointing the granite, along with removing, cleaning, repairing, and reinstalling the four pedestal statues.

Phillips School, Boston

The Phillips School at the corner of Pinckney and Anderson Streets in Boston, in 1860. Photo taken by Josiah Johnson Hawes. Courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

The building in 2021:

A high school education is a near-ubiquitous experience for modern Americans, but this was not always the case. In the early years of the country’s history, secondary education was generally only available to white boys whose families had the inclination and financial ability to send them to a limited number of private academies. However, this concept began to change in the first half of the 19th century, when social reform helped lead to an increased access to education.

One of the first public high schools in the United States was the English High School in Boston, which opened in 1821. Unlike most of the earlier schools, which focused on preparing students for college, this school was intended more for middle class students, particularly those who were looking to become merchants and mechanics. The 1871 book Semi-Centennial History of The English High School provides an overview of the course of study at the school during its early years. In their first year, pupils studied:

Composition; Reading from the most approved authors; Exercises in criticism, comprising critical analyses of the language, grammar, and style of the best English authors, their errors and beauties; Declamation; Geography; Arithmetic continued; Algebra.

In their second year, they studied:

Composition; Reading; Exercises in criticism; Declamation; Algebra; Ancient and modern history and chronology; Logic; geometry; Plane Trigonometry, and its application to mensuration of heights and distances; Navigation; Surveying; Mensuration of superficies and solids; Forensic discussions.

And, in their third year, they studied:

Composition; Exercises in criticism; Declamation; Mathematics; Logic; History, particularly that of the United States; Natural Philosophy including Astronomy; Moral and Political Philosophy.

The school was housed at a temporary location for several years, but in 1824 it moved into this newly-constructed building at the corner of Pinckney and Anderson Streets on Beacon Hill. Although this neighborhood is predominantly residential, the school fit in well with its surroundings. Like the nearby rowhouses on Beacon Hill, the school was built of brick, and its design incorporated a blend of older Federal-style architecture with newer Greek Revival-style elements. It was formally dedicated at a ceremony on November 2, 1824, which was attended by a number of city dignitaries, including Mayor Josiah Quincy III and the Reverend John Pierpont, future maternal grandfather of financier J.P. Morgan. An article published in the November 13, 1824 issue of the Boston Recorder describes the event:

This new school house surpasses any other in the city for beauty and accommodations. Besides ample rooms below for ward meetings and other public purposes, the two higher stories contain accommodations for six hundred scholars, and the whole is warmed and ventilated by two furnaces. Its situation, on the most elevated spot in the city, commands a view of the heavens, which most admirably adapts it for astronomical pursuits, which constitute one of the important branches of instruction—and this alone would render it the most eligible location for the seminary. The handsome cupola on the summit is calculated to afford increased facilities for the same pursuit, and together with the commodious apartments below, furnishes, for the first time, sufficient space and accommodations for the preservation & employment of its fine collection of philosophical instruments.

The ceremony of the introduction of the Preceptor and pupils, by the Mayor and Aldermen and School Committee, attended by such parents and other citizens as chose to attend, was a most interesting scene. The Rev. Mr. Pierpont, of the School Committee, commenced by an appropriate and affecting prayer. The address by the Mayor to the pupils, a hundred and forty promising youths, fully explained to them the high privileges and most important advantages they enjoyed for education, the judicious and expensive patronage extended to the Seminary by the public—that in fact nothing was left undone to afford them every facility for their moral and intellectual improvement—and that if these superior advantages were not duly appreciated and improved by them, the fault must be acknowledged entirely their own. He explained to them the obvious and immediate advantages of their several studies for the advancement of their own personal pursuits, and for their improvement and elevation in their political relations as citizens.

The English High School remained at this location for the next 20 years. Enrollment fluctuated during this time, but was generally between 110 and 140 students in any given year. It dropped as low as 104 students in 1839, but by 1843 enrollment had risen to 170, the highest number while the English High School was in this building. However, graduation rates were low throughout this time. Of the 73 students who enrolled here in 1824, for example, only 13 subsequently graduated. Most years saw similar attrition rates, and the largest graduating class during this period was 24, out of 61 students who had entered in 1839.

The English High School relocated to a new building on Bedford Street in 1844, and the old building here on Beacon Hill became a grammar school. It was named the Phillips School, in honor of Boston’s first mayor, John Phillips, and it opened in the fall of 1844. However, just a few months later, on February 1, 1845, it was heavily damaged by a fire that started in a furnace flue in the basement. It was subsequently repaired, and by 1847 the school enrolled 369 boys.

The 1851 book Sketches of Boston, Past and Present includes a description of the school and its students:

The location of the district from which the school is gathered, is one of the most favorable in the city, as its pupils generally come from the first class families. While this fact is beneficial in many respects, it almost necessarily keeps the school “young,” as its pupils are early transferred to higher schools.

What this book’s description of the school did not include was the fact that it was exclusively for white students. At the time, Boston’s public schools were segregated, and black children who lived in the vicinity of Beacon Hill attended the Abiel Smith School, which still stands a few block away on Joy Street. However, change was already underway, beginning in 1848 when a black Boston resident, Benjamin Roberts, sued the city to allow his daughter to attend one of the white schools closer to their house, rather than the Smith School. He lost his lawsuit, and also lost the appeal, when the state’s Supreme Judicial Court upheld Boston’s segregated school system. Undeterred, Roberts then enlisted the help of the abolitionist community, both black and white, and successfully petitioned the state legislature to outlaw school segregation in Massachusetts. This law went into effect in 1855, and Massachusetts became the only state to ban school segregation in the 1800s, nearly a century before the landmark Brown v. Board of Education did the same at the national level.

Here on Beacon Hill, the Phillips School was among the first of Boston’s schools to be integrated, with 15 black students enrolling here for the first day of classes in the fall of 1855. This desegregation in Boston was celebrated by the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator, which declared on September 7, 1855 that:

On Monday last, Boston ceased to be, for the first time in her history, contumaciously unjust and basely proscriptive in regard to equal school rights among her children, irrespective of complexions distinctions.

The newspaper then went on to provide an excerpt from the Evening Telegraph, which described the first day of integration:

The introduction of the colored youth into the schools, we are happy to say, was accomplished with general good feeling on the part of both teachers and white children. At the Phillips School, at the West End, one or two of the white boys were making a little merry sport at the colored pupils as they came up, but the principal, Mr. Hovey, stayed it at once by the quiet remark, ‘Is that your politeness to strangers?’ One enthusiastic white boy ran through Myrtle street, swinging his satchel, and crying out—’Hurrah! we are to have the darkies to-day, and I’m going to have one right side of me!’ . . . The appearance of the colored children in the heretofore by them unfrequented streets leading to the school houses created a ‘sensation’ among the neighbors, who filled the windows, probably in anticipation of trouble. So far as we can hear, there was none, however, in any part of the city.

The first photo was taken only a few years after integration, by prominent photographer Josiah Johnson Hawes. At this point it was still the Phillips School, but within a few years the school would relocate to a new building and would become the Wendell Phillips School, named in honor of the prominent abolitionist and son of the original namesake.

In the meantime, by the late 19th century the old building here in this scene had become a primary school, named the Sharp School. Among the teachers here at the Sharp School was Elizabeth N. Smith, who had been the first black teacher at an integrated school in Boston when she started her career at a different school in 1869. She eventually ended up teaching here at the Sharp School from 1894 until shortly before her death in 1899.

The Sharp School remained here until it closed in 1946, and the building was subsequently sold to the Boston School of Pharmacy. Then, in 1955 the building became the home of the Carnegie Institute, which focused on training medical professionals such as X-ray technicians, lab technicians, medical assistants, and medical secretaries. This school was still around as late as 1980, and was named the Carnegie Division of the Bay State Junior College. However, it appears to have closed soon after, because in 1983 this building was converted into condominiums, after more than 150 years of housing a wide variety of schools.

Today, over 160 years after Josiah Johnson Hawes took the first photo, the exterior of the building has remained well-preserved, despite many changes in use over the years. Its surroundings are also largely unchanged, with most of the early 19th century rowhouses still standing on the narrow streets of Beacon Hill. The old school building is significant not only for its role in the early history of public high school education in America, but also for its pioneering role in school desegregation. It is an important part of the Beacon Hill Historic District, and it is also a stop on the Black Heritage Trail, which highlights the history and landmarks of the free black community that prospered on Beacon Hill during the 19th century.