Dartmouth Street and Huntington Avenue, Boston

The northwest corner of Dartmouth Street and Huntington Avenue in Boston, in 1873. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

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The scene in 2015:

Today, Copley Square is a major focal point of the Back Bay neighborhood, but in 1873 it was still very much a work in progress. Although the Boston Public Library’s McKim Building would come to be a defining feature of the square, its completion was still more than 20 years away. The house in the first photo was the western extent of the Back Bay development at the time; beyond it in the distance are empty lots and marshland soon to be filled in for the project. Aside from this house, the only other building visible in the scene is the New Old South Church, which was under construction to the right.

The church is still standing today, but the house would not last very long here. By the late 1880s, it was demolished to build the main branch of Boston Public Library. This architecturally prominent building would serve as a predecessor to many other grand urban libraries in the country, and today it is as much a museum as it is a library, with significant collections of rare books, manuscripts, artwork, and photographs, including the 1873 photo featured here.

Boston Public Library Entrance, Boston

The main entrance to the Boston Public Library on Dartmouth Street, around 1907. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The library in 2015:

These photos show the detail of the entrance to the Boston Public Library’s main branch at Copley Square.  The history of the library building is explained in more detail in this post, but it was completed in 1895 and served as a precursor to many similar libraries across the country in the early 20th century.  The main entrance reflects the building’s Renaissance Revival architecture, which includes a symmetrical design with arched doorways, as seen here.  Above the central arch is the head of Athena, which was carved by famed sculptors Domingo Mora and Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and further up are three relief sculptures that were also carved by Saint-Gaudens.  The central one features the seal of the Boston Public Library, with a banner above it reading “Lux Omnium Civium,” or “The Light of the People.”  To the left is the seal of Massachusetts, and to the right is the seal of the city of Boston.

The building was designed by Charles McKim of the firm McKim, Mead & White, and it is named the McKim Building in honor of him.  Over 120 years after its completion, it has seen few changes, as the two photos show here.  It was expanded in 1972 to accommodate the library’s growing collections, but there were no major alterations to the original section, and it still Boston’s central library as well as a major architectural landmark in the city.


Copley Square, Boston

Copley Square as seen from the steps of Trinity Church in Boston, around 1900-1910. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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Copley Square in 2015:

Today, Copley Square is one of the focal points of the Back Bay neighborhood in Boston.  The park is often used for public events, such as the farmers market seen in the first photo.  However, it wasn’t always that way.  In a neighborhood where everything was meticulously planned by 19th century planners and landscape architects, Copley Square as we know it today did not come about until the 1960s.

Like the rest of the Back Bay, Copley Square was once just a polluted tidal mudflat, but throughout the second half of the 19th century it was steadily filled, providing the overcrowded city with a new, upscale neighborhood.  As the wealthier citizens moved west, so did many of the city’s major institutions.  Many were located in the vicinity of Copley Square, including Trinity Church, Old South Church, the Museum of Fine Arts, MIT, and later the Boston Public Library.  However, Copley Square itself was originally just a triangular intersection, where Huntington Avenue and Boylston Street met just west of Clarendon Street.

The first photo shows Huntington Avenue crossing diagonally through the square, with a small triangular park on the right.  Originally, even this was not intended to be a park; an atlas from 1874 shows a building on part of the triangle, and the rest of it was divided into housing lots.  Because the Museum of Fine Arts was located here, it was called Art Square until 1883, when it became Copley Square.  The new name was keeping with the art theme, though; it was named for John Singleton Copley, an early American painter from Boston.

The two most prominent buildings in both photos are the Boston Public Library in the center and the New Old South Church to the right.  Completed in 1895 and 1873, respectively, they are two major Copley Square landmarks that have survived largely unchanged.  The only major difference in the buildings is the church tower, which was replaced in the 1930s after the ground under it began to subside, causing a three foot lean at the top of the tower.

The most dramatic change in the two photos is the surrounding neighborhood.  Huntington Avenue now ends at St. James Avenue, so now the square is literally a square.  In the 2015 photo, much of it is in the shadow of the John Hancock Tower, which is located just behind and to the left of where I took the photo.  The background shows some of the other high-rise construction that the Back Bay has seen over the years, including the Prudential Tower, 111 Huntington Avenue, and several other buildings in the Prudential Center complex.

Boston Public Library, Boston

The Boston Public Library’s McKim Building at Copley Square in 1899. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The building in 2015:

This style of Renaissance Revival architecture was common for public libraries in the United States in the early 20th century, but Charles Follen McKim’s design for the Boston Public Library was the first.  It was constructed between 1888 and 1895, and is one of the most architecturally significant library buildings in the country.  It set the stage for similar grand libraries in American cities, including the main branch of the New York Public Library, which opened just over a decade later. Like many of Boston’s other cultural institutions, the library was strategically located in the Back Bay neighborhood, which had gone from polluted tidal marsh to affluent residential neighborhood in less than 50 years. However, one of the challenges in constructing large buildings here was the high water table and the tendency of the filled-in ground to subside.  As a result, the 19th century Back Bay buildings are supported by wooden piles; the library alone has about 4,000  piles that were driven 25 to 31 feet into the ground in the 1880s.

Today, the McKim Building is well-preserved on both the exterior and interior.  The interior includes a grand staircase and the massive Bates Hall reading room, along with a central courtyard, all of which was, as the inscription reads, “dedicated to the advancement of learning.” The main branch of the Boston Public Library has since outgrown the original building, so in 1972 an addition was put on the back, expanding the building to include the entire city block between Dartmouth and Exeter Streets.  Named after its architect, Philip Johnson, this building houses the library’s circulating collections, leaving the original building for the library’s extensive research collections.  Many of these collections are also available online, including a massive collection of historic photographs on Flickr that has been a great resource for this blog.

The greatest change in this scene, however, is the city around the library.  The secion of the Back Bak to the north of Boylston Street has been largely preserved in its original Victorian appearance.  However, to the south of Boylston Street, as seen here, the area has become home to some of the city’s tallest buildings, including the Prudential Tower to the right, the second-tallest in New England after the nearby John Hancock Tower.  Probably the oldest building in the 2015 photo other than the library is the Lenox Hotel, barely visible on the far right beyond the library.  It was built in 1900, so it may have even been under construction when the first photo was taken.