Faced with the needs of Boston’s growing population, mid-19th-century city planners decided to fill in a soggy, marshy area of the city known as the Back Bay. With the help of a new innovation known as the steam shovel, it soon became a fashionable neighborhood for wealthy families, with elegant boulevards modeled after the Champs-Elysées in Paris and a central square named after 18th-century Boston painter John Singleton Copley. It was surrounded by distinctive stone buildings supported by thousands of vertical wooden pilings extending dozens of feet below street level to keep them from sinking into the silt.
Stay on Copley Square and you’ll cross off several Boston sights in no time.
Gliding up to 138 St. James Ave. in an über-polished Mercedes E-Class with ergonomically contoured massage-giving seats, we arrived at the “grande dame” of Boston: The Fairmont Copley Plaza. The luxury hotel’s entrance is guarded by not only a landmark pair of gold lions, but also a resident canine ambassador, currently known as Carly Copley.
Built on the original site of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, the hotel is the work of Henry Janeway Hardenbergh, who also designed the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. and the Plaza in New York, its sister hotel. Since the seven-floor Classical-style hotel opened on August 19, 1912, its famous guests have included every United States President since William Howard Taft, Frank Sinatra, Luciano Pavarotti, and Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, who chose it for their second honeymoon.
The mosaic-patterned entrance hallway, known as “Peacock Alley” because elegantly dressed Bostonians once paraded along it, leads to an opulent lobby with a 21-foot-high gilded, coffered ceilings, Waterford crystal chandeliers and Italian marble columns. The hotel’s Grand Ballroom once hosted waltzes and events honoring President Kennedy; its Oval Room maintains its elegant French features, including iridescent pearl shell lighting and a cloud-and-sky ceiling mural that once included an angel painted by John Singer Sargent.
Staying at this central location, we were just steps away from two longtime places on my sightseeing list.
One was Trinity Church, named by the American Institute of Architects as one of the ten greatest buildings in the country. A masterpiece of architect Henry Hobson Richardson, the building established the influential Richardsonian Romanesque architectural style. With its clay tile roof, rough-faced stone, rounded arches and tower, the exterior borrows from French and Spanish sources.
Richardson took a groundbreaking approach not only to ecclesiastical architecture, but also to fulfilling the expectations of its rector, Phillips Brooks, who served this Episcopal congregation from 1869 to 1891. Its open floor plan was designed to provide worshipers with unobstructed views of their charismatic rector who also wrote the Christmas carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
To create an interior that as bold and daring as its exterior, Richardson and Brooks turned to John La Farge, an artist who trained as a painter, but found his talent in stained glass. Assisted by a small team of artists, La Farge completed the first part of his ambitious project in only five months, during the winter of 1876-77, in the unheated church. The breathtaking results of his painted murals and stained glass windows were markedly different from the austere church interiors of the day.
Trinity Church’s stained glass windows are some of the finest in the nation. Four were designed by the English Arts and Crafts artist Edward Burne-Jones and were executed by William Morris & Company. Others were created by Clayton & Bell of London, as well as Boston-based Arts and Crafts designers Margaret Redmond and Sarah Wyman Whitman, who designed the carpet for the sanctuary’s center aisle.
Still more were created by La Farge; his most famous is Christ in Majesty, the inspirational design Brooks requested so that he could look at something inspiring while preaching. La Farge’s windows illustrate his new, patented ways of assembling stained glass, layering colored and translucent white opalescent glass to obtain three-dimensional shading, and using hundreds of fractured colored-glass nuggets to create a beautiful “broken jewel” effect.
Steps away across Copley Square stands the other attraction: the Boston Public Library’s Central Library.
Established in 1848, the Boston Public Library was the first publicly supported municipal library in America, the first public library to lend books, the first to have a branch library, and the first to have a children’s room. As its services expanded to meet Boston’s growing population, the library broke ground on its third and current central location here in 1888. Architect Charles Follen McKim’s creation, considered one of the finest examples of 19th-century American architecture, lives up to its billing by Oliver Wendell Holmes, who proclaimed, “This palace is the people’s own!” when it opened in 1895.
On the outside, the library looks like a Renaissance palace, with a red tile roof; a green copper cornice ornamented by seashells and dolphins to depict maritime Boston; wrought-iron lanterns; and inscribed window arches with medallions representing the trade devices of early printers and booksellers. Above the entrance, Augustus Saint-Gaudens carved the head of Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, as well as the seals of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the library, and the city of Boston. “Free to All” is carved on the keystone of the central granite arch. Bronze female figures flanking the entrance personify art and science.
Inside, three sets of bronze doors created by Daniel Chester French depict allegorical figures representing music, poetry, knowledge, wisdom, truth and romance. Beyond them, a pink marble vestibule with floors inlaid with brass inscriptions and zodiac symbols is topped by a ceiling featuring names of famous Bostonians.
Novelist Henry James found the main staircase to have “a high and luxurious beauty,” with its variegated yellow, saffron, topaz and amber marble walls and patterned marble floors. Twin lions on pedestals, sculpted from unpolished marble by Louis Saint-Gaudens, memorialize two Massachusetts Civil War infantry regiments. Since 1895, visitors like me have rubbed the lions’ tails for good luck.
Windows look out onto a central courtyard with an arcaded promenade and Frederick MacMonnies’ Bacchante and Infant Faun, a copy of the original bronze cast fountain statue that was given to the library by McKim himself, removed when the community objected to it, and transferred to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s a perfect place to take a break, or stop in the library’s tea room for afternoon tea.
Second-floor corridor mural paintings by French painter Pierre Puvis de Chavannes depict the nine muses of disciplines you can pursue in the library, together with a figure representing the genius of enlightenment. The corridor leads to Bates Hall, the library’s main reading room. Filled with white marble busts of eminent authors and Bostonians, it is named for London banker Joshua Bates, the library’s first major benefactor.
The former book delivery room features a ceiling modeled after that of the library in the Doge’s Palace in Venice. The Quest of the Holy Grail — an eight-foot frieze of mural paintings by English illustrator Edwin Austin Abbey — depicts Sir Galahad in his symbolic red cloak.
A long, narrow hall on the third floor of the library features Triumph of Religion, a spectacular series of murals by John Singer Sargent. The artist spent 30 years working on paintings for the walls, niches, vaulting and lunettes, and considered them his greatest achievement.
After Sargent was given the commission in 1890, he approached it methodically, traveling to gain ideas, making sketches and drawings, and building elaborate scale models. He painted the canvases in his studio in England, then brought them to Boston to install them. When he passed away in 1925, he had not finished the final, central panel along one wall, intended to illustrate the Sermon on the Mount; it was left blank.
What makes these brilliantly colored, spectacular images from Jewish and Christian religious history so distinctive are the special touches Sargent used to illuminate them in unconventional ways: textured surfaces around the murals, painted to look like stone; raised relief elements in gilded plaster; applied gilded pieces of Lincrusta; small pieces of colored glass to look like jewels; and silver-gilded wood beading to represent the rays of the sun. He also designed the gold frames surrounding the panels, the wall surfaces around the murals, painted to imitate stone; decorated moldings and ornaments; patterned tapestries; metal candlesticks; bookcases and light fixtures.
While at Copley Square, don’t miss the Tortoise and Hare statue honoring the Boston Marathon, which ends at the Boston Public Library; Max Brenner’s decadent chocolate bar; and L.A. Burdick Chocolates, known for its handcrafted chocolate mice.
For more, see A Handbook to the Art and Architecture of the Boston Public Library: Visitors Guide to the McKim Building, Copley Square, Its Mural Decorations and Its Collections, by Peter A. Wick; John Singer Sargent’s Triumph of Religion at the Boston Public Library, edited by Narayan Khandekar, Gianfranco Pocobene and Kate Smith; and Catie Copley and Catie Copley’s Great Escape, both by Deborah Kovacs.