Skip to main content

Trustees of the Boston Public Library Records: McKim Building Art and Architecture Records

 Collection — Container: MS Bos Li
Call Number: MS Bos Li

Scope and Contents

Although plans for a permanent library building for the City of Boston began in the mid- nineteenth century, it was not until 1888, when Samuel Abbott, the President of the Trustees of the Boston Public Library, accepted the architectural plans by the New York firm McKim, Mead & White, did the project come to fruition. This collection documents the Trustees approval of  the design submitted by Charles Follen McKim, the meeting between Charles Follen McKim, Stanford White and Augustus Saint-Gaudens to discuss building’s decorative features, and Abbott and McKim’s meetings with John Singer Sargent and Edwin Austin Abbey in which they discussed the possibility of creating murals for the Library. Among the subjects found in the correspondence from Abbey and Sargent are the artists’ descriptions for the designs of their murals, plaster and lighting experiments, room dimensions, shipping arrangements, and installation schedules.

In addition to the details in  the Abbey and Sargent murals, a significant amount of correspondence documents the origins of the McKim Building’s other major works of art, such as the lion sculptures by Louis Saint-Gaudens, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes’s The Muses mural, and John Elliot’s ceiling mural The Triumph of Time. Other subjects covered include the controversies over Frederick Macmonnies’s Bacchante sculpture, the religious depictions in Sargent’s mural and the lighting of the Sargent and Abbey murals. The histories of the Anne Hutchinson sculpture and other paintings in the Library such as Howard Pyle’s Washington at Valley Forge and Benjamin Franklin by Joseph Sifréde Duplessis, are also covered.

This collection also contains the plans and sketches for the building’s architectural details, specifically the design of the courtyard and its arcaded gallery, the exterior inscriptions, and the bronze doors created by Daniel Chester French. Other details, such as Domingo Mora’s Minerva, and the installation of the vestibule are included.

The bulk of the McKim, Mead & White correspondence recounts the day-to-day details that were involved in the construction of the building. For example, the logistics of building the grand staircase, the specific kinds of material that were used throughout the building, progress reports, installation of the heating and ventilation system, and cost estimates are some of the topics that are documented. Discussions regarding the Library’s decorative features from the arrival and placement of clocks, chandeliers, furniture, and can also be found in the correspondence.


  • 1859-1965
  • Majority of material found in 1888-1895


Conditions Governing Access

The collection is open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

Items in this collection may be subject to copyright restrictions. In most cases, the Boston Public Library does not hold the copyright to the items in our collections. It is the sole responsibility of the user to make their own determination about what types of usage might be permissible under U.S. and international copyright law.

Biographical / Historical

Chronology (abridged):

1852 - Boston Public Library is founded.

1852-1858 - Library is located in Mason Street schoolhouse. Library moves to new Boylston Street building, designed by Charles Kirk Kirby.

1880 -  Massachusetts Legislature grants library to City of Boston.

1882-1884 - Proposal to convert English-High and Latin School for library building is rejected by Trustees and City Council. Specifications for new building are distributed; all designs are determined inadequate.

1885-1886 - Plans for new building are begun by City Architect, Arthur H. Vinal. Laying of foundations occurs without approved plans.

1887-1888 - Full control over design, construction, and maintenance of building is given to Trustees. Vinal is relieved of architectural responsibilities. Samuel Appleton Browne Abbott is named President of Trustees. Approval of plans by architecture firm McKim, Mead & White. Construction begins. Meeting between Charles McKim, Stanford White and Augustus Saint-Gaudens to discuss building’s decorative features. Laying of cornerstone by Oliver Wendell Holmes.

1889 - Installation of Raphael Guastavino tiles on ground floor and in other parts of building.

1890-1891 - Commission between Edwin Austin Abbey and John Singer Sargent to decorate Book Delivery Room and Sargent (3rd floor) gallery is informally agreed to by Trustees. Placement of Louis Saint-Gaudens's lions in main staircase. Completion of frieze inscriptions and tablets. Setting of courtyard arcade and fountain basin.

1892 - Contract awarded to Augustus Saint-Gaudens for two groups of figures to be placed outside Dartmouth Street entrance.

1893-1894 - Commission received by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes to paint The Muses mural in main staircase. Painting of The Triumph of Time by John Elliot and creation of Venetian Lobby by Joseph Lindon Smith. Contract signed by Daniel Chester French to construct three bronze entrance doors. Acceptance by Trustees of Frederick Macmonnies's statue of Sir Henry Vane.

1895-1899 -  First viewing of Sargent’s mural – Pagan section. Installation of Puvis de Chavannes’s The Muses in main staircase. Furor over Macmonnies's Bacchante and Faun causes Trustees to reject sculpture. Working models of Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s Labor, Science, Art, Power and Religion sculptures are made.

1901-1903 - Installation of Abbey mural completed. Unveiling of John Eliot’s ceiling decoration. Installation of second portion of Sargent mural. Opening of medieval end of Sargent mural.

1907-1908 - Death of Augustus Saint-Gaudens changes plans for Dartmouth Street sculptures.

1911-1912 - Placement of Bela Pratt’s sculptures on Dartmouth Street platform.

1916-1919 - Unveiling of medieval ceiling in Sargent mural. Installation of Sargent mural completed.

1924 - Damage inflicted on Sargent mural.

1929-1933 - Lighting added to Sargent staircase. Recommendation made that Sargent and Puvis de Chavannes murals be examined by professionals for cleaning and restoration.

1940 - Overall restoration of Sargent murals made (undocumented).

1947 - Installation of new lighting system in Abbey room.

1953 - Cleaning of Sargent murals (undocumented).

1967-197 - Approval of design for Johnson Building. Groundbreaking ceremony. Dedication and opening of Johnson Building.

1981-1987 - Planning for restoration of McKim Building, including murals, begins. McKim Building designated as a National Historic Landmark. Design development phase of restoration project completed.

1991-1995 - Restoration of McKim Building begins (Phase I). Official reopening of McKim Building.

1999 - Examination of Sargent murals for feasibility of full-scale restoration.

2002-2003 - Restoration of Sargent murals.

2009 - Installation of torchiere lights in Sargent gallery.


3.00 Cubic Feet (6 manuscript boxes, 1 oversize box, and 1 map drawer)

Language of Materials



The collection is arranged alphabetically by subject.

Method of Acquisition

Trustees of the Boston Public Library.

Related Materials

Edwin Austin Abbey correspondence. See card catalog.

Mary Gertrude Abbey correspondence, MS Am. 645.

John Singer Sargent correspondence. See card catalog.

Additional BPL Trustee's records are available, contact Rare Books and Manuscripts Dept. for further information.

Related Publications

Building Conservation Associates, Inc. Boston Public Library McKim Building, Boston Massachusetts: Historic Structure Report.Volume 1. 1998. Wick, Peter Arms. A Handbook to the Art and Architecture of the Boston Public Library. 1977.

Processing Information

Finding aid prepared by Kimberly Reynolds, October 2009.

Processing Information

This electronic finding aid is transcribed from legacy data. In many cases, transcriptions were not verified against collection materials at the time of transcription. As a result, this finding aid could be incomplete and might only reflect a partial understanding of the material.

Statement on harmful description

Archival description reflects the biases of time periods and cultures in which it was created and may include direct quotations or descriptions that use inappropriate or harmful language. Creator provided descriptions may be maintained in order to preserve the context in which the collection was created and/or used. Legacy description and potentially offensive content may be made available online until a collection can be reprocessed because the access that they provide to primary source materials is uniquely valuable to the research community at large. Our efforts to repair outdated descriptions and to describe our collections more equitably are iterative and ongoing.

Trustees of the Boston Public Library Records: McKim Building Art and Architecture Records
Kimberly Reynolds, October 2009
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Revision Statements

  • 2009-10: Reprocessed in October 2009.

About this library

Part of the Boston Public Library Archives & Special Collections Repository

700 Boylston Street
Boston MA 02116 United States