Boston Public Library, Main Buildings
700 Boylston St.
Boston’s main public library buildings are a testament to the effort the city puts into its public establishments. Both the McKim and the Johnson buildings are works of art unto themselves. However, they also serve the larger purpose of disseminating art, literature and research resources to the public. They give people a place to read and learn. The library buildings are also home to several important rare books and manuscripts that are kept safe and preserved within their walls.
The Boston Public Library dates back to 1848, which is newer than other libraries in the city, but the fact that it was open to the public made it special. Only a few years after it was established, it was decided that a new building was required to house the city’s growing book collection. However, that building, designed by Charles McKim, was not completed until 1895. The second structure of the main library, the Johnson Building, is starkly different, but less than a century older than the McKim Building. It opened its doors in 1972 as the new home of the library’s circulating collection.
The first thing visitors notice about the McKim Building and the Johnson Building is the architecture. The McKim Building is the older of the two and features gorgeous designs from Charles Follen McKim, which include arches, columns, marble door frames and a grand staircase. It is one of the city’s gems. The Johnson Building, designed by Phillip Johnson, is much more modern, but built with a level facade of the same material for continuity. While lacking the classic appeal of its sister building, it is a spacious and impressive design.
The Boston Public Library system is a massive sharing library that is interconnected throughout the city and even beyond. It also has a rare collection that includes gems from the city’s history. One holding is The Bay Psalm Book from Boston’s Old South Church. Others include books that belonged to John Adams, maps and anti-slavery materials. There are different levels of access to the different materials in the library, so be sure to ask what is available to view.
Fans of art would be remiss to skip the BPL when checking out the best art in the city. Artists that grace the halls of the Museum of Fine Arts also grace the library, mostly in the McKim Building. “Triumph of Religion” by John Singer Sargent can be found in Sargent Hall. There are bronze doors crafted by the same man who designed the Lincoln Memorial. In the Abbey Room, there is a series of paintings depicting “The Quest and Achievement of the Holy Grail” by Edwin Austin Abbey. The Elliott Room has the John Elliott mural “The Triumph of Time.”
The main Boston Public Library branch is located at Copley Square and is within walking distance from Boston Common, the Prudential Center, multiple hotels and many colleges. A farmer’s market is nearby, as well as a multitude of places to eat, see a movie or catch a play. Old South Church, the congregation from which the Bay Psalm Book came, is just up the street. To get to Copley Square, just take the Green Line on the MBTA to Copley Station. The library is impossible to miss from there.
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Anyone can visit the main branch of the Boston Public Library. With a little research, a self-guided tour is possible. However, the library offers brief walking tours for those who want to see the building’s highlights with a little help. The tour covers the McKim Building inside and out, pointing out the pink marble of the vestibule, the twin lion memorials of the grand staircase, the murals, Bates Hall and much more. Visitors who are unfamiliar with the building’s layout and interested in learning more about its history will benefit from a guided tour.