Last spring a friend gave me a so-called Bon Vivant Journal which has a quotation on the back cover by the famous turn-of-the-century French author Marcel Proust: “The voyage of discovery lies not in finding new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” Many of us have had the occasion to travel to exotic destinations armed with cameras, ready to observe unusual places of interest. But the idea of seeing what’s around us with new eyes is a very insightful claim. While I’m not a native of Boston, I spent three years living there as a young woman and never really saw the extraordinary beauty that was right in front of me. Take the Boston Public Library, for example, which I never realized is considered one of the most beautiful public libraries in the U.S. Fortunately for me, the complimentary Where Magazine in our hotel listed days and times of the free one-hour tours.

Dan, the guide, told us that the BPL, the oldest municipal library in the United States, is also a presidential library, having nearly 4000 books from John Adams. The present building, erected by the architecture firm McKim, Mead, and White in 1848, is in the Italian palazzo style. It has twenty-eight varieties of marble and grillwork similar to that of Paris’s Musée d’Orsay and the Basilica di San Marco in Venice. For decades many of the features of the library were covered in carpet or veiled in soot from the former Back Bay Railroad, once situated where the Prudential Building now stands. As a result of a 150 million dollar renovation begun in 1991, the building now reflects its former glory.

On the cold evening we were there, the ground was covered by 14 inches of snow, forcing us to begin the tour indoors. In the foyer our guide pointed out three sets of beautiful bronze doors by Daniel Chester French, representing the muses of Wisdom, Truth, Poetry, Romance, Knowledge, and Music. Through the doors, one finds a vaulted ceiling covered by decorative mosaics, some celebrating prominent Bostonians such as Adams, Emerson, and Peirce. I should add that mid-nineteenth century Boston had the good fortune to be the new residence of many Italian artisans who were able to use their artistry to complete this part of the project. The grand staircase of Siena marble was designed by Parisian Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, who (believe it or not) never went to Boston! He simply created a model in 1/10th scale which the crew in the U. S. used to assemble his creation.The resulting flight of stairs, flanked by two unpolished marble lions and the artist’s murals which were rolled up and sent from France, is truly gorgeous.

At the top of the steps you enter the Bates Reading Room, which rivals that of the New York Public Library. The space is lovely with its green-shaded lamps and shotgun windows which look out onto Copley Square and Trinity Church. Just outside of the reading room is the Delivery Room which continues to use its 1887 system for distributing some of the library's 8 million books to patrons. This area, also known as the Edwin Austin Abbey Room, is lined with the artist’s murals illustrating Galahad’s search for the Holy Grail by Tennyson.

As if all this weren’t enough to classify Boston’s main library as a masterwork, the third floor is not to be missed. Besides a collection of books and memorabilia dedicated to Joan of Arc, there are murals by John Singer Sargent. A friend of the architect McKim, Sargent decorated opposing walls portraying figures from the Old and New Testament. There are even three dimensional elements which protrude from the surface adding to the beauty of the paintings.

Finally, if you have the opportunity to visit this library in warm weather, be sure to see the courtyard where you could have lunch and admire Bacchante and Infant Faun by Frederick William MacMonnies. The naked statue was “banned in Boston” for awhile by prudish nineteenth century residents but is now back where she belongs--in the middle of the reflecting pool. Amusingly, a bust of the principal opponent of Bacchante is placed facing her for all eternity.

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