Exploring Boston: Another Public Library Gem

Given the interest in my post on New York’s Public Library, I thought some of you also may be interested in another public library of equal magnificence — the Boston Public Library, located in Boston, Massachusetts.  Boston’s library has the honor of being the first large public library in the United States, constructed and open to the public at its current location on Copley Square in 1895, after residing in smaller quarters elsewhere for its first 40 years.

The exterior of Boston's Public Library
The exterior of Boston’s Public Library

From the moment we walked up the marble steps and glanced through the large bronze doors, we were aware this building held many treasures, with the building itself a treasure and piece of stunning architecture designed to reflect the significance of this public resource.

Boston Public Library main entrance

We visited the library during Boston’s “First Night” activities on New Year’s Eve several years ago.  The library offered art and architecture tours as part of the city’s day-long arts and cultural festival.  Free tours are offered throughout the year, and the library’s website provides a convenient self-guided walking tour, from which I obtained many of the historical facts outlined in this post.

Marble mosaic in the entrance hall

Gracing the arched ceiling of the grand entrance hall were extensive marble mosaics, featuring the names of famous Bostonians. Walking toward the main staircase, arches and columns of yellow Siena marble framed beautiful murals in the upper hallway by the French painter Puvis de Chavannes.  He painted to depict the four great expressions of the human mind: poetry, philosophy, history and science.  An extensive recounting of the history behind this artwork can be found on the website for the Journal of the American Institute for Conservation.

Puvis de Chavannes mural in the hallway above the main staircase
Puvis de Chavannes mural, The Inspiring Muses Acclaim Genius, Messenger of Light, above the main staircase

I was fascinated by the marble lions, sculpted from unpolished Siena marble, sitting in contrast to the beautifully-veined yellow Siena marble lining the walls and banisters of the main staircase.  Each of the lions was erected as a memorial to a Massachusetts Civil War volunteer infantry regiment, one in honor and memory of the Second Regiment and the other in honor and memory of the Twentieth Regiment.

Marble lion memorial in honor of the Second Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment
Marble lion memorial in honor of the Second Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment
Marble lion memorial in honor of the Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment
Marble lion memorial in honor of the Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment

Our tour guide encouraged us to touch the tail of the lion honoring the Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.  While the lions were sculpted from unpolished marble, we could observe the result of thousands of hands “petting” the lion over the years, wearing its rough coat to the smooth, polished marble, a soft gold with striations of darker marble emerging from the rough outer coat.

One of the marble lions gracing Boston Public Library's main staircase
Veined marble shines through after innumerable hands have worn down the unpolished outer coating of the lion sculpture

I could not help but feel a sense of awe and wonder as we walked into Bates Hall, and I experienced a similar feeling as we walked into New York Public Library’s main reading room.  Boston Public Library’s Bates Hall was named after the original major contributor to the library:

Joshua Bates was born in 1788 in Weymouth,        Massachusetts. As a youngster growing up in Boston he spent as much time as the proprietors of the Hastings, Etheridge & Bliss’s bookstore would allow educating himself by reading books. Mr. Bates went on to become the senior partner of the great banking house of Baring Brothers and Company.

On October 1, 1852, after reading the first Annual Report published by the Trustees of the Boston Public Library, he wrote a letter to the Mayor of the City of Boston offering to donate the sum of $50,000 for the purpose of purchasing books for the new library. The only condition was that “the building shall be such as to be an ornament to the City, that there shall be a room for one hundred to one hundred and fifty persons to sit at reading tables, and that it be perfectly free to all.”

How can one not be inspired by such a tale of altruism and benevolence?!  Reflecting back through history, we are indebted to so many forward-thinking people such as Mr. Bates, who shared a portion of his wealth to invest in the greater good and future of his community.  In the words of Andrew Carnegie, a man who most people would agree left the legacy of the public library system in small cities and towns throughout the United States:

“A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert.”

Boston Public Library's Bates Hall
Boston Public Library’s Bates Hall

The stunning interior of the Boston Public Library did not end with its reading room.  The Sargent Gallery featured a mural painted by John Singer Sargent, titled Triumph of Religion.  It is a rather imposing work, reflecting the development of world religions.

Boston Public Library's Sargent Gallery

Boston Public Library's Sargent Gallery

As we descended from the Sargent Gallery on the 3rd floor, I enjoyed the views of the interior courtyard.  I am certain that on a warm, sunny day this peaceful courtyard practically insists that one sit and enjoy a book along its graceful perimeter.

The interior courtyard at the Boston Public Library

The interior courtyard at the Boston Public Library

Later that evening, as First Night activities continued throughout the city, the Public Library was the stage and backdrop for a festive light show, with snowflakes dancing on the exterior walls while colorful lights showcased the ice sculptures elsewhere in Copley Square.

Boston Public Library during "First Night" activities

The Boston Public Library is located in the Back Bay neighborhood of Boston, on Copley Square, convenient to many other popular Boston sights.  It may not be an attraction that is on the tourist’s radar screen, but for anyone interested in art and architecture, or the historical significance of the country’s first major public library, the Boston Public Library is a worthwhile stop.

Ciao! ~ Kat

23 responses to “Exploring Boston: Another Public Library Gem”

  1. I love libraries, and the institution of public libraries in the US is truly something to be proud of. I haven’t been to this library yet–thank you for putting it on my radar. I hope you will see the Library of Congress next time you are here. It is not quite as open to research there as public libraries, but it is free and open to the public, and it is easy enough to get a reading card.


    • These libraries collectively hold so much history, and continue to serve an important role of accessibility to information and research resources, whether via newer technology or old paper books. Thanks for taking time to comment!


  2. I wonder how many readers you’re inspiring to visit a library and start taking photos? Especially some of the libraries in big cities. Nice job, Kat.


  3. I loved your post. I went to the New York Library in April of last year, but your way of taking us through them is so much fun! Next time I am in Boston- I must check out the library!!!!


  4. We stumbled across the Chicago Public Library by happenstance a few years ago and it was just like you said – it was not on our tourist radar screen, but well worth the visit!! The art and architecture were breathtaking, and similar to your photos from Boston, with intricate details in the walls, floor, ceiling, trim – everything. Absolutely magnificent! Much gratitude to the wise folks who had the vision to build a library as a sacred shrine.


  5. Simply stunning! Thank you so much for sharing your visit. You are so right to observe we’re all deeply indebted to the foresight and generosity of individuals such as Mr. Bates!


  6. Wow – I love libraries. I toured the Library of Congress many years ago – the sheer beauty of these buildings is inspiring, but my mind always does a little freakout dance. I could spend years just perusing and reading and never have enough time! Just point me to a good reading chair…


    • We did not visit the Library of Congress when we were in D.C. a few years back — may need to add that to the library list on an upcoming visit we have there! ~ Kat


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