Boston Public Library

20140608_130048e700 Boylston Street, Boston, MA see

Quick facts

  • The first public library in the United States.
  • Located at the Copley stop on the MBTA Green Line, directly across from Trinity Church, at the west side of Copley Square, at the Boston Marathon finish line

Established in 1848, Boston Public Library was the first public library in the United States, and it is still one of the largest public libraries in the country. The original building, featuring a palatial facade, a grand staircase, and a classical courtyard, was designed in the Renaissance style by McKim, Mead, and White and opened in 1895.

A postmodernist addition was designed by Philip Johnson and opened in 1972. The Johnson building holds the BPL’s main circulating collection, while the McKim building houses the library’s research collection. The photographs on this page are all of the McKim building.

Notable Features of the McKim Building:

Facade | Courtyard | Main staircase | Bates Hall | Abbey Room | Sargent Murals

Facade |

Invalid Displayed Gallery

The stairs leading up to the Boston Public Library feature two bronze sculptures of women, one representing ‘Art’ and the other representing ‘Science.’ The sculptures are by Bela Lyon Pratt.


The BPL’s central courtyard is surrounded by an arcaded gallery, based closely on that of the sixteenth-century Palazzo della Cancelleria in Rome. The center of the courtyard features the bronze sculpture Dancing Bacchante and Infant Faun, by Frederick Macmonnies.

Main staircase and Chavannes Gallery |

“Painted by the renowned French artist Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, the murals adorn the walls of the McKim building’s grand staircase and second floor gallery. The central mural depicts “The Muses of Inspiration Hail the Spirit of Light.” Eight stairway murals representing the main disciplines of poetry, philosophy, and science complete this allegorical cycle.”

Bates Hall |

“Acknowledged by many to be architecturally one of the most important rooms in the world, Bates Hall features a majestic barrel-arched ceiling enclosed by half domes on each end, English oak bookcases, busts of eminent authors and Bostonians, and a richly carved limestone balcony. The hall, located on the second floor of the McKim building, is named in honor of Joshua Bates, a London merchant banker born in Weymouth, MA, who in 1852 gave the Library $50,000 for the purchase of books.”

Abbey Room |

“Murals entitled the “Quest of the Holy Grail,” by American artist, Edwin Austin Abbey, grace the walls of the Abbey Room on the second floor of the McKim building. The murals are composed of a series of 15 panels featuring 150 life-sized figures illustrating the Arthurian legend. The room also features a beautiful fireplace of French rouge antique marble, dark oak wainscoting, and a beamed ceiling modeled after one in the library of the Doge’s Palace in Venice. ”

Sargent Murals |

One of Boston’s greatest hidden treasures is located on the third floor of the Boston Public Library (McKim building): John Singer Sargent’s mural cycle The Triumph of Religion.

“Sargent considered this effort to be his most important work. Distinctly different from his well-known portraits of distinguished Americans and Europeans and his delicate landscapes, Sargent painted in the style of Italian Renaissance frescos by incorporating the architectural detail of the building into the work. ”

Great blog post with a lot more information and links about the BPL’s Sargent Murals:

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