In another move towards pre-pandemic normalcy, the Central Branch of the Boston Public Library in Copley Square has resumed offering free art-and-architecture tours on a regular basis.
The approximately one-hour tours take place from 11 a.m. to noon on Friday, July 29; Saturday, July 30; Friday, Aug. 5; Saturday, Aug. 6; Friday, Aug. 12; Saturday, Aug. 13; Friday, Aug. 19; Saturday, Aug. 20; Friday, Aug. 26; and Saturday, Aug. 27. To secure a place on a tour, visit the McKim Building welcome desk any time in the hour leading up to the start time to receive a tour sticker. Tours are led by BPL guides and begin in the McKim Building vestibule, located just through the library’s Dartmouth Street entrance.
Tours do not require a reservation for parties of five or fewer guests, but group sizes will be limited to 25 guests per guide, and tours are subject to guide availability. (Please note, however, that the library is unable to accommodate individual parties larger than five people on these tours, and that unauthorized guides are not permitted to lead tours within the library.)
The current iteration of the library’s art-and-architecture tours dates back to 1987 and was established with a grant from the Junior League of Boston, said Meg Weeks, the BPL’s curator of interpretation, who now coordinates the tours. Right before the pandemic struck, the BPL was giving tours to 15,000 guests each year, said Weeks, and the program had “essentially doubled in size over the seven years prior to 2019.”
Last summer, the tours, which had been suspended due to the pandemic, resumed as a pilot, with a limited number of guests who were all required to wear masks, according to Weeks. But as COVID-infection rates again began to rise, the tours were temporarily put on hold again before resuming on June 24 of this year.
“The tours focus on the arts and design highlights of the 1895 McKim Building and center around the building as a singular ‘place of the people’ in the words of Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes,” said Weeks.
According to the BPL website, “At the cornerstone-laying ceremony of the Boston Public Library’s Central Library in 1888, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes proclaimed before the gathered crowd that ‘This palace is the people’s own.’ In designing the new building, architect Charles Follen McKim and library trustees sought to create a veritable ‘palace’ to inspire and elevate its public. BPL’s McKim Building, opened in 1895, is considered one of the finest examples of 19th-century architecture in America; the adjoining Boylston Street Building, opened in 1972, is newly renovated to provide leading offerings in 21st-century library services.”
Said Weeks, “The McKim Building itself is a singular design masterpiece…but on the tours, we also dive into the really significant contributions by painters, sculptors, and decorative artists that are attached to the building.”
Besides the two marble sculptures of lions in the McKim Building’s grand staircase created by the renowned American sculptor, Louis St. Gaudens (brother of the renowned American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who contributed work to the library façade), these works also include a third-floor mural cycle that the venerable portrait painter John Singer Sargent, spent 29 years working on, as well as another mural cycle by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, whom Weeks describes as “arguably among the most significant wall painters in Western Europe in the 19th century.”
The murals in the library’s Puvis de Chavannes Gallery adorn the walls of the McKim Building’s grand staircase and second-floor hall gallery. The central mural is called “Hail the Spirit, the Harbinger of Light,” The Muses of Inspiration, and the eight stairway murals depict “the disciples of poetry, philosophy, history, and science complete this allegorical cycle,” according to the BPL website.
Looking to the fall, Weeks hopes that these library tours will become even more-frequent offerings.
“We’re really grateful to our volunteer tour guides who have partnered with us in their dedication after the pandemic to help us bring this service back to the public,” said Weeks. “We hope things continue to move in the right direction in terms of the public health situation…and that we will be able to expand the tour schedule come autumn.”
For more information on the tours, visit https://www.bpl.org/art-tours/.