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 2021:

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. Overall, not much has changed in this scene over the past 120 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:

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:

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:

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.

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.