Boston’s jewel box

I had heard that the downtown Boston Public Library was one of the most beautiful libraries in the United States (as well as one of the first publicly-funded libraries, founded in 1848), so on a recent trip to Beantown, I headed over to Copley Square to see this icon for myself.

The library is actually made up of two connected buildings: the ornate 1895 building designed by the famed nineteenth century architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White, and the stark 1972 building built by the equally famed twentieth century architect Philip Johnson.

The McKim Building

Even before I entered the building, I knew it was going to be special because it looked like a big square jewel box. Huge curved windows lined the walls, and, as I entered the front doors, carved into the stone above, were the words: “Free For All.”

I walked into a lofty lobby, covered in marble, with a grand staircase, where standing guard were two lions, carved by sculptor Louis Saint-Gaudens. (They looked a lot like the famous lions in front of the New York City Public Library, but these were created first.)

At the top of the staircase was the reason why the library makes it on to the “most beautiful” lists. Bates Hall is a coffer-ceilinged, large-windowed, book-lined reading room where scholars come to peruse the materials they request from the research collection (or just to study as I saw many people doing). I found myself whispering here just because it was that kind of place.

I was puzzled by the empty wall spaces, which lacked decoration of any kind, so unlike the lobby I had just ascended. A librarian said there had never been anything on the walls as far as he knew. I later found out that the artist James Whistler (yes, of Whistler’s Mother fame) had been commissioned to paint them but had dithered so long that eventually the library ran out of money to pay him. The walls have been blank ever since.

The third floor lobby contained another crown jewel, where the walls were decorated with religious murals by the well-known 19th century painter, John Singer Sargent. The artwork was quite elaborate in its detail, and there was more than paint on the walls; it incorporated raised elements in the designs, such as shiny stones embedded to depict a jeweled necklace.

Tucked away in a corner of the third floor was the rare book room, which was well-designed with sealed shelving and low level lighting, and included a fine exhibit on women writers. However, a first folio of Shakespeare’s works from the 1600s was tucked away in a small display box off to the side, not highlighting its importance. The librarian told me that most of the rarest items were in storage, many of which she had never seen herself. These included cuneiform tablets from 1250 BCE and a page from the 1455 Gutenberg Bible.

Having glimpsed the courtyard from the third story windows, I went back down to the first floor and caught some sun in the lovely courtyard where people were reading and enjoying the central fountain.

The Johnson Building

On the other side of the courtyard, I entered the Johnson Building and could tell immediately that this was a very different building. Low ceilings, carpeting, and free-standing shelving clearly indicated the building’s 1970s roots.

Moving through to the information desk, I was hit with a burst of sunlight and a soaring ceiling capped with a skylight. This atrium was the center of the Johnson building, but what a different feel from the McKim lobby! The immense space was very simple with blank walls and two angular staircases rising up along the walls. They went to a mezzanine where balconies overlooked the street level spaces, with tables and seating areas on one side and a sea of book stacks on the other.

The second floor was closed for the first phase of a planned renovation. I spoke with a staff member who said that a major piece of the renovation will be to remove the concrete grid in front of the street level windows to open up the library to the street.

I took a quick look outside to view the exterior architecture of the Johnson building. Yes, it was in a plain, no-frills 70s style, but it looked like the architect had made an effort to link it with the McKim building, with such elements as the same roof height, a similar stone colour, and curved window openings that mimicked the arched windows of the older building.

Although the Johnson building was impressive in a stark sort of way, I went back to the McKim building for one last look. I wanted to re-experience its elegant proportions, lovely details, and that grand feeling of library as temple, or, more aptly, as jewel box. Truly a beautiful space!