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Boston Public Library

Foundations of America

QU201 Prof. Scott Leone

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Boston Public Library

The Boston Public Library

Stony Creek Granite contributed to the landscape of America.  In the United States the great age of granite took place between the Civil War and World War I. When one looks at buildings, libraries, cemeteries, monuments and railroad stations one notices many are made of Stony Creek Granite. The growing industrial revolution, advances in technology and the public demand for monuments and buildings on a grand scale were three essential factors that produced some of the most important and very impressive buildings. Architects like McKim, Meade and White were known for producing some of the most popular and America’s greatest granite buildings.

            One of the greatest granite buildings is The Boston Public Library, located in Boston Massachusetts. During 1888 through 1892 the library was both built and architected by the New York Architecture firm, Mead, McKim and White. The material from which the library was constructed, is the beautiful pink granite quarried at Milford, Massachusetts. This granite came from the Pink Granite Company.  This pink granite is recognized for its astonishing strength and durability. The soft quality of tone on this granite is very much recognized. The Boston Public Library is one of the most important buildings in which the Milford Pink Granite has been used. The library is situated on the south side of Copley Square and in the Back Bay Area of Boston. It was built to be seen as a keystone in the attempt to bring cultural and scientific institutions into Boston. The Boston Public Library was proclaimed to be a “palace for the people”.

            Architect, Charles Follen McKim’s design shows the influence from numerous architectural precedents. Its design was new to American Architecture and its construction marked a resurgence in American Classicism. The design owed to the works of Labrouste Alberti and Roman Colosseum. The original design of the building was the result of a contest and the top winning entries were poor copies of Henry Richardson’s style. The actual design was created by McKim, Mead firm after being courted by the development committee chairman. The design was not only inelegant it was also structurally feasible. It was capable of being achieved and reasonable enough to believe.

            The Boston Public Library received a wide range of funding. Josiah Quincy Jr, while being major of Boston anonymously donated $5,000 to begin the funding of the new library. John Jacob Astor , the creator of the first trust in America making his fortune in fur trading, real estate and opium was a multi-millionaire in the United States and also donated $400,000 indirectly. Joshua Bates, an international financier also made a generous $50,000 donation to establish the Boston Public Library. After donating 30,000 volumes to the institution the main hall, “Bates Hall” was named after him. The Great and General Court of Massachusetts enabled the creation of the library in 1848, and the library was officially established in Boston by a city ordinance in 1852. Some supporters such as Edward Everett and George Ticknor became involved in the active planning for the new library and even collected documents and offered collections to help establish the new library at their own expense.

            The Boston Public Library was relocated multiple times as time went on. The Library’s first home was on Mason Street in 1854 with a collection of 16,000 volumes. The Mason Street Library was quickly outgrown and in 1854 the library’s commissioners authorized the library to move to a new building on Boylston Street. This building opened in 1858 and was able to hold 240,000 volumes and eventually outgrew that building as well. The site selected next was in the Back Bay on Copley Square on the prominent corner of Boylston Street. After the debating years over the selection of architects and architectural style the New York firm of McKim, Mead and White were chosen to design the new library.

            This palace for the people made a strong statement while fitting in with its neighbors. The Boston Public Library turned the tide of the “Brown Decades”, with its light granite façade. The comparison of structure and granite was seen in contrast to other important buildings such as the Trinity Church right across the street made with square dark, polychrome walls of stone. The Library carried an astonishing elaborateness of detail. The halls and facade of the library were not only designed for literature knowledge to the people but also with appreciation of the arts. Perhaps it was the first time in American Architecture that architects, painters, and sculptors worked closely to coordinate decoration of  both the interior and exterior of the Boston Public Library as a civic monument. There were murals by Sargent, Abbey and de Chavannes that graced the walls while sculptors such as Pratt and Saint- Gaudens created both freestanding sculptures and panels for the entry façade.

            The flexibility designed into the structural system by McKim and Mead made it very possible for reconfiguration of spaces well into the next century. The Library floors were designed using Guastavino vaults of thin title arches with thinner tile vaults. In 1967-1971, Philip Johnson and John Burgee designed the Boston Public Library Addition! In 1972, “The Johnson Building” was opened to the public. This addition was added in a square block directly behind the original library. This was a late modernist addition somewhat anticipating postmodernist architecture, it reflected similar proportions and is built with the same pink granite as the McKim Building of Milford granite. The volumes of the collection line unadorned walls of the new library to be looked at by anyone.

            The Norcross brothers had a huge role in the ornamental brickwork of the interior of the Boston Public Library. This along with the wainscoting of the Periodical Room and the Catalogue Room and many of the work rooms within the library were done by the Norcross Brothers. They used a comfortable effect that is pleasant to the eye by using warm red and yellow bricks. The beautiful cloister of the Interior Court is probably the most noticeable work of the Norcross Brothers. The marble basin of the fountain has captivated many viewers with its beauty. It is made of white marble and gives the fountain a pure tone of a restful and soothing effect design.

            The Boston Public Library was the first example of a major public leading library. For this reason, design decisions were very difficult in light of the fact that the architects had few other examples from which to guide. The Library’s capacity was planned include 700,000 volumes that were to be lent to patrons and to also be a major United States reference collection. As of today, the collection of the Boston Public Library has grown to 6.1 million books making it the largest municipal public library system in the United States. The Boston Public Library has become a member of the Association of Research Libraries because of its strength and importance of research collection. The Association of Research of Libraries is a nonprofit organization comprising the research libraries of North America.

            The Boston Public library has growing strength in art and art history. On the third floor of the McKim building, there are numerous amounts of Art and its history, American history and all the significant components, and a depository of government documents. Included in the Library is a collection of more than 1.7million rare manuscripts and books. These include but are not limited to medieval manuscripts and incunabula, the George Ticknor collection of Spanish literature and early editions of William Shakespeare. A major collection of Daniel Defoe, records of colonial Boston, mathematical and astronomical library of Nathaniel Bowditch and very important manuscript archives on abolitionism are also possessed in the Library. There is also a major collection of materials on the Sacco and Vanzetti case, the 3,800 volume personal library of John Adams, and important papers of William Lloyd Garrison. Not only does the library carry important documents but there is also a large collection of prints, photographs, postcards, maps and music! The library holds one of the most important collections of watercolors and drawings by Thomas Rowlandson, and the papers of the important American composer Walter Piston. The library’s special strength in music is shown by the collection of the archives of the Handel and Haydn Society and scores from the estate of Serge Koussevitzky.

            For all that the Boston Public Library carries, stands for and for being the “Palace for the people”, historian David McCullough has described it as one of the five most important libraries in America. The others are the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library and the university libraries of Harvard and Yale. Unfortunately for the Boston Public Library, in recent years it was not been fully funded adequately befitting its status. Staffing and funding levels for conservation are below its peers and the Libraries staff of two full-time conservators compares very poorly with New York’s Public Library of thirty-five. Also many colonial records and manuscripts are falling apart, decaying and in need of attention. The only thing left to do is to cut some if its branches and staff.

            Successful libraries are timely and possess a "timeless" character. A number of elements have contributed to the timeliness and timeless character of the Boston Public Library .This “Palace for the people” was created by architects Mead, KcKim and White. The library was used as a vehicle for an American resurgence in “Classicism” and the form of the building is modeled on an Italian palazzo with a serene courtyard. Granite made a huge contribution to the landscape of America. The Boston Public Library is one of America’s greatest granite buildings.


Works Cited:

Boston Public Library







Last Updated on Tuesday, 02 November 2010 22:14  


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Flesh and Stone

Flesh and Stone - Stony Creek and the Age of Granite - buy at Amazon.com
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Uncirculated: Shrink wrapped in clear plastic from original Italian publisher, 1999. Ships with fresh samples of sparkling Stony Creek pink granite for historians, collectors, geologists and classrooms. Additional samples available upon request.