Scenes from the Boston Public Library

I've been to Boston almost a dozen times but for some reason, I never ventured into the Boston Public Library (which is strange, because I love books and I love reading). On my latest visit, I decided to pay this venerable library a visit and brought along my camera. My visit was on a Sunday, when the library opened at 1PM. I waited outside the front door for about fifteen minutes, during which a line formed to enter the library. Once the front door was open, it was interesting to see people scamper to different parts of the library--some headed to the computers, others went to the music listening station, and others climbed the stairs to the second and third floors to pick out a table on which to set materials for a healthy study session.

History of the Boston Public Library

The Boston Landmarks Commission provides the following historical overview of the main building of the Boston Public Library, located at 700 Boylston Street, Boston MA 02116. 

The Boston Public Library is the main branch of the municipal library system. The earliest building on the site was designed by Charles Follen McKim of McKim, Mead & White and constructed between 1888 and 1895 by Woodbury and Leighton. This is the second building to be constructed to act as the main branch of the Boston Public Library, which was established in 1852 as the first free municipal public library in the country.

The McKim Building has received two additions since its completion. The first was designed by Joseph McGinnis and constructed in 1918. This addition was demolished for the construction of the Johnson addition, designed by Philip Johnson and completed in 1971.

The McKim Building has a hollow square plan with rooms surrounding an inner courtyard. The McKim Building currently houses the research collection, the special libraries, the public documents library, the microtext and periodicals collections, stacks and the photo and prints collection. The Johnson addition has a plan consisting of nine squares, the center one open and covered with a skylight. The Johnson addition currently houses the circulating collection, the rare book collections, lecture halls, the office of the President and Trustees Room, the ordering and cataloguing departments and stacks.

Architectural grandeur took precedence over functional requirements in McKim’s design for the Library. It was majestically finished to serve as a “Palace for the People.” The Renaissance Revival style strongly contrasted with the Romantic architecture extant at Copley Square at its date of construction and the work of McKim, Mead & White during this period stimulated a nationwide Renaissance Revival movement in architecture.

The design of the Boston Public Library integrated art and architecture at a new level for an American municipal building, with sculptured elements by Augustus St. Gaudens and Domingo Mora integrated into the facades, statues by Bela Pratt flanking the front entry, and bronze entry doors designed and executed by Daniel Chester French. The interior of the building, finished in rare marbles throughout, is embellished with mural paintings by John Singer Sargent, Edwin Abbey and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. The design of the Johnson addition was intended to continue the monumental and classical design of the McKim Building simplified to a mid-century modern expression.

Interesting bit of trivia: the Boston Public Library is the second largest library in the United States by the number of volumes it contains, second only to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. 

Picking out a spot on the second floor of the library.

The cursive i in this image is not Photoshopped.

The red colors in this section of the library really stood out.

Detail from the interior of the library.

Bates Hall

Perhaps the most well-known section of the Boston Public Library is the Bates Hall. Bates Hall is named for the library's first great benefactor, Joshua Bates. The form of Bates Hall, rectilinear but terminated with a semi-circular apse on each end is a reminder to the design of a Roman basilica. A series of double coffers in the ceiling provide a sculptural canopy to the room. 

One of the entrances to Bates Hall.

The striking green lamps at Bates Hall.

Finding a spot under the lamp.

Wide view of Bates Hall.

View of Bates Hall in the opposite direction.

A great clock at the edge of Bates Hall.

Visitors walking the alley of Bates Hall.

The Grand Staircase and the Lion Sculptures

On the edge of the grand staircase in the Boston Public Library one will come across two lion sculptures. The two lion sculptures were executed by Louis St. Gaudens, each from a single block of Sienna marble.

Inscribed at the bottom of the sculpture are the names of the battles fought by the 2nd and the 20th Massachusetts regiments: Ball's Bluff, Antietam, and Gettysburg. The veterans of the 20th Massachusetts and the 2nd Massachusetts regiments commissioned the two lion sculptures.

The lion sculptures in front of the grand staircase in the Boston Public Library.

A view of the double coffered ceiling and the great chandelier above the grand staircase in the Boston Public Library.

A side view of one of the lion sculptures and the grand chandelier.

Exterior Courtyard and Other Views

Nestled into the Boston Public Library's center is an open-air courtyard closely based on that of the sixteenth-century Palazzo della Cancelleria in Rome. Designed in the manner of a Renaissance cloister, the courtyard is surrounded by an arcaded gallery. In the middle of the courtyard is a small plaza with a square fountain basin. At the center of the basin is Frederick William Macmonnies’ Dancing Bacchante and Infant Faun atop a granite plinth, surrounded by a circle of water fountains.

Open-air courtyard at the Boston Public Library.

A good place to study.

Viewing up.

A wide interior view of the Boston Public Library from the second floor.

An interior view of the Boston Public Library toward the Childen's library.

Loved this "The Plot Thickens" inscription on this ladder.

If You Go

The Boston Public Library (central location, known as the Boston Public Library McKim Building) is located in Copley Square of Boston (700 Boylston Street) and is open Monday-Thursday from 9AM to 9PM, 9AM to 5PM on Fridays and Saturdays, and 1PM to 5PM on Sundays. The Library is closed on public holidays (full list of closures here).

I highly recommend visiting an ongoing exhibition at the Boston Public Library titled Breathing Room: Mapping Boston's Public Spaces located within the Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center. This exhibition profiles some of wonderful green spaces of Boston (such as Boston Common and the Boston Public Garden) through time. This exhibition runs through September 30, 2018.


Observations at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

What are some things that one can do in an art museum? I pondered this question on a recent visit to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Some immediate things that come to mind:

  1. Observe (look at) art.
  2. As a continuation of observation, read the accompanying banner about the art piece or listen to a segment corresponding to the art piece on the audio tour.
  3. Interact with art (if the piece calls for it and/or it is allowed).
  4. Makes a sketch (or sketches) of the art in front of you.
  5. Describe the art piece to someone in your vicinity (to an audience, such as a guide might do) or mention something about the art (or not) to someone in your vicinity to elicit a reaction.
  6. Take a picture of the art in front of you.
  7. Take a selfie in front of an art piece.
  8. Have someone take a photo of you in front of an art piece (or some architectural element of the museum).
  9. Go to a help desk to ask for directions or inquire about the latest exhibition. 
  10. Within the confines of a museum, go get some nourishment in the form of drink or food.
  11. Take a break from art—answer an email on your computer or phone, scroll through your Instagram account, read some brochures about the museum, or discuss something non-art related with your friend, partner, significant other, spouse, parent, sibling, or child.

What else would you add to the list above?

Take a look at the photos below. What else would you consider part of a visit to an art museum which isn't reflective in these photos?

Afternoon tea break at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

When a work e-mail calls...

Observing Claude Monet's Haystacks series.

A question subject to debate: landscape or portrait mode for capturing photos of art?

All Art Has Been Contemporary. (One can make the same claim about technology.)

"And then I said..."

"Can we discuss this some other time?"


My favorite photograph of this set: the observation state of this woman is deep and transformative. 

You can't fly in a museum, but you can take photos of flying art.

A few questions for the reader:

Was it easy to characterize the photos above into the categories listed at the top of the post? Would some human activities belong to multiple categories? What are some of your favorite things to do in an art museum?


All photos captured with the Canon 5D Mark IV + Canon 35mm f/1.4L lens.