McKim Building Exterior Tour
Part 1: The Art & Architecture of the Boston Central Library in Copley Square
Part of the Central branch of the Boston Public Library is known as the McKim Building, which was built in 1895 in a Beaux-Arts architectural style designed by Charles McKim, of McKim Meade and White Architects. The Boston Central Library was the first large scale urban library, and the first major Beaux-Arts style building, constructed in the United States.
Charles Follen McKim, 1847 to 1909, was born in Pennsylvania, and educated at Harvard University in Boston, and at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris France, where he focused on the development of the Beaux-Arts architectural style. By 1877, he formed a partnership with William Rutherford Mead, and Stanford White, to form the firm of McKim Mead and White. The firm established itself in New York City, and became a leader in classically trained and technically skilled architects producing major works in New York City like the former Pennsylvania Station, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Columbia University campus. Outside of New York, major works included the Rhode Island State House, and the National Museum of American History in Washington DC.
The main entrance to the library is on the east side facing Dartmouth Street and Copley Square, so this branch is also referred to as the Boston Public Library at Copley Square. The building’s roof is copper with a green copper cornice in patterns of seashells and dolphins, making reference to Boston’s maritime ties. The building’s exterior walls are granite, cut and sculpted into a beautiful facade.
At the top of the building just below the cornice is an inscription reading, “THE PUBLIC LIBRARY OF THE CITY OF BOSTON, BUILT BY THE PEOPLE AND DEDICATED TO THE ADVANCEMENT OF LEARNING” (1888). The north and south faces also have an inscription which reads, “THE COMMONWEALTH REQUIRES THE EDUCATION OF THE PEOPLE AS THE SAFEGUARD OF ORDER AND LIBERTY”, and, “(1852), FOUNDED THROUGH THE MUNIFICENCE AND PUBLIC SPIRIT OF CITIZENS”. Above the main entrance on the east side are three relief sculptures by Augustus Saint-Gaudens displaying the seals of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the Library, and the City of Boston.
Additional sculpted forms include thirty-three medallions between the gallery windows representing trade devices from early printers and booksellers dating back to the 16th century. The medallions are by sculptor Domingo Mora, and the keystone above the central entrance depicting the head of Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, is by the sculptors Domingo Mora and Augustus Saint-Gaudens; and finally, above the keystone is the inscription “FREE TO ALL”, a motto established at the library’s inception by John Bates, one of the first major benefactors to help create the library.
Augusta Saint-Gaudens, 1848 to 1907, was born in Dublin Ireland and raised in New York City where his parents had immigrated and settled in the United States. He studied at Cooper Union and the National Academy of Design in New York City, and at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris France. Many of his best sculptural works were done in collaboration with the architect Stanford White of McKim Meade and White, and his brother Louis Saint-Gaudens, who also became a sculptor.
Domingo Mora, 1874 to 1911, was an architectural sculptor, born in Catalonia Spain, where he studied in Barcelona and Madrid. Mora immigrated to Uruguay and later to the United States where he became the chief designer for the Perth Amboy Terra Cotta Company, designing architectural sculpture for hundreds of buildings in New York City, Boston, and Los Angeles.
On each side of the main entrance are bronze alegorical sculptures by the sculptor Bela Pratt, representing Science and Art, 1912. Bela Lyon Pratt, 1867 to 1917, was born in Connecticut and studied at the Yale University School of Fine Arts. He continued his education with the Art Students League of New York where he studied under many notable artists including Augustus Saint-Gaudens who became his mentor. From there he went to Paris and trained under several sculptors at the École des Beaux-Arts and then returned to the United States in 1892.
Inscribed on each side of the sculptures, Science and Art, and also below the upper level gallery windows, are the names of great historical writers, artists, scientists, philosophers, and statesmen, indicating that there works from history can be found here, at the Boston Public Library. An index of those names is available online at archive.org.
The west face of the McKim building is covered by an addition completed in 1972 in a modern architectural style by the architect Philip Johnson. That face did not have an elaborate facade but instead was covered in a brick veneer, lending itself to plans for a future addition.
There is an open air courtyard in the center of the building, which features a covered arcade surround with a central plaza, and a fountain featuring a bronze copy of the sculpture, “Bacchante and Infant Faun”, by Frederick MacMonnies, originally completed in 1894. The sculpture was also known by another name at that time, the “Priestess of Bacchus”; priestess representing a non-Christian religion, and Bacchus being the Greek god of wine, inebriation, fertility, and theater.
Frederick William MacMonnies, 1863 to 1937, was an American sculptor also trained at the École des Beaux-Arts, and a friend of McKim, and did most of his early work in France. MacMonnies’ gifted the sculpture to McKim who in turn offered it as a gift to the library in honor of his second wife who had died at child birth in 1887. The library board accepted the gift but McKim later removed it due to ongoing protests from religious groups that objected to the nudity. It was then given to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, where they decided to ignore the protests. In 1999 this replica was installed at the library in fulfillment of McKim’s original intent.
The Boston Public Library was originally established in 1848 and by 1854 had acquired a temporary building on Mason Street. In 1858 a more purpose-built permanent building was established, known as the Kirby Building located on Boylston Street. It was occupied until the current library was opened in 1895, and then demolished in 1899.
This concludes Part 1 of this story. Part 2 is long, but covers the beautiful interior Art and Architecture of the McKim Building , which is amazing with spacious halls and galleries adorned with magnificent murals. The story puts together the 43 murals, from the 3 galleries, with their descriptions, in a way that I have not found anywhere else. The best way to read it is with the “Listen” feature on Medium, if you are a member of Medium you can listen to the audio as you examine each of the murals.
I have made several trips into downtown Boston to explore the art, architecture, and historical sites, and have found that the Boston Common Garage with its entrance on Charles Street to be one of the most convenient. It is underground parking, under the Common, that is spacious, well lit, and safe.
My journey to the Central Library was an 18 minute walk overall, but included breakfast at Tatte Bakery & Cafe at Back Bay. It is similar to a Starbucks, with great coffee, breakfast sandwiches, and pastries; and great service including a customer restroom, which is not always available at many downtown establishments.
Other buildings of interest in the area include the Old South Church in Boston, built in 1873, in a Gothic Revival architectural style by Charles Amos Cunnings and Willard Sears. It looks like another trip is needed.
Notes and References:
Story and photographs by David Smitherman with site visits made in August 2023.
Historical data collected from brochures, onsite inscriptions, Wikipedia, and Google Maps.
Boston Public Library at https://www.bpl.org/.
Handbook of the New Public Library in Boston, 1895 edition at https://archive.org/details/handbookofnewpub00smal/mode/2up.