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Art & Architecture Tours of the Boston Public Library

By Jenne dos Santos and Melissa Wreyford

The Volunteer Office of the Boston Public Library (BPL) offers Art & Architecture Tours of the original building, highlighting the architecture of Charles Folan McKim and the original art work that still resides within the building by famed sculptors, painters, and artisans.

The original building, known as the McKim Building, is located in historic Copley Square near
the Trinity and Old South Churches, which were all built in the late 1800s.  The design of the building shows influence from a number of architectural precedents from various European cities such as the Palazzo della Cancelleria in Rome and the Bibliotheque Sainte-Genevieve in Paris, where McKim spent several years prior to designing the BPL.  During the construction of the building the Library Trustees, who were funding the project, and the local residents were not fond of the design as it was far less ornate than the Gothic Revival and Romanesque styles that were the predominant architectural styles in the Copley Square area and very popular during the late 18th century.  In fact, the McKim Building was referred to, rather derisively, as the “cigar box” because of its square shape and lack of ornate detail.  At the time, people thought the building to be quite ugly!  Of course, its design was actually progressive because architecture was becoming increasingly sleek and far less ornate over the last century.

The construction of the project went grossly over schedule and more than doubled in cost over the original estimate to a staggering $3,000,000!  We learned that McKim, after his funding was cut off by the Trustees, put quite a bit of his own money into completing the design/vision he had for the building.  He felt that in order to complete the design, the artwork was as necessary as the building itself.  McKim purchased several pieces of artwork, paying for some of the specialty artisans and materials, such as imported marble, out of his own (deep) pockets. 

One of the most well-known pieces of artwork in the BPL was the Dancing Bacchante statue, which resides in the center of the courtyard water fountain.  Unfortunately, the original statue was removed from the BPL due to public objection (the Women’s Temperance Movement) to the woman appearing to be engaging in inappropriate behavior while caring for an infant.  The original was eventually gifted by McKim to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  Ironically, a replica was later placed back in its original location and still resides there today.