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Restoration of the McKim Building

Central Library

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Evolution of the McKim Project

A planning grant from the Massachusetts Historical Commission in 1980 enabled the Trustees of the Boston Public Library to undertake an initial feasibility study for the restoration and renovation of the historic McKim Building. For this purpose, the Trustees engaged the services of Stull Associates, Inc. The Stull report - A Restoration Program for the McKim Building of the Boston Public Library and A Handbook to the Art and Architecture of the Boston Public Library - was completed and presented to the Trustees in August 1981. The report outlined the scope of work needed primarily for restoration of historical spaces, but did not address the extensive need for functional renovation. The report served as a basis for the Trustees to undertake additional feasibility analysis and to seek initial funding.

By 1983, the Trustees were successful in obtaining Mayoral and City Council approval of a loan order under the City's capital budget to support the renovation and restoration of the McKim Building.

Soon after this benchmark was reached, the Trustees appointed an architectural selection committee, drawing upon the volunteer services of several noted architects, conservationists, and engineers. The firm of Shepley Bulfinch Richardson and Abbott was retained in 1985 to work closely with the Library's administration, staff, and governing board in reviewing functional needs in addition to the historical design considerations. It was recognized that the magnitude of the project would require implementation in stages; however, it was deemed important that the architects develop conceptual and design outlines for the entire project before phasing was determined. Click here to view the phasing plan. Approvals were given to total project conceptual and design work in 1987, and to Phase I working drawings and bid specifications two years later in 1989.

McKim Project, Phase I

Work commenced on Phase I of the project in September of 1991. This phase entailed, under the general construction contract, the installation of new heating, ventilating, air conditioning, electrical and telecommunication systems, and the renovation and expansion of public service areas in the basement and first floor of the McKim building. The renovated basement spaces now house the Government Information Department, exhibit cases, and new public restrooms. This space was damaged during a flood in August 1998 and is currently undergoing restoration. Renovated spaces on the first floor will eventually provide for a tea room, a new centralized information station, and a new lecture hall; at the present time, these spaces are serving as temporary quarters for public service departments displaced by the flood and other construction.

During the Phase I construction period, a first step in McKim Building fine arts restoration work was undertaken. Based upon a condition analysis and treatment proposal, the Center for Conservation and Technical Studies of the Harvard Art Museums completed the restoration of the Puvis de Chavannes murals in the Venetian Lobby surrounding the grand staircase.

Under separate contract, another simultaneous project was undertaken for the restoration of the exterior granite platform. The majority of this platform covers interior spaces which house research materials so that a primary objective of the work was to provide the best possible waterproofing system. To enable the work, brick pavers and monumental granite pavers were lifted from their setting beds and the granite pavers were saw-cut to reduce their thickness before resetting. Great care was taken in the handling and reinstallation of the historic original granite pavers to exactly match the layout in which they were found, and to mitigate complications due to possible accumulated setting errors.

Phase I was officially completed in August 1996.

McKim Project, Phase IIa

Phase IIa of the McKim project included historic restoration work which focused on Bates Hall, the Catalogue Information Room, and the Elliot Room, with the intent of returning these spaces as close as possible to their original appearance. Electrical and mechanical systems were upgraded to support the public service function of these spaces, but in ways which preserved the priority of historic restoration of the existing building fabric.

Bates Hall, named after the first great benefactor of the Library, serves as the main reading room and is one of the most historically significant spaces of the McKim Building. It commands the full width of Copley Square, running 218 feet long, 42 feet wide, and 50 feet high. In addition to the restoration of this entire space, at the north and south ends of Bates Hall, behind the existing screens of original carved oak, new woodwork was introduced to accommodate the requirements of public service in the departments of Social Sciences to the north, and Humanities to the south. The new woodwork is detailed to appear discrete from, yet sympathetic with the original, and is of commensurate materials and craftsmanship. Bates Hall was reopened on November 3, 1997.

The Catalogue Information Room, adjacent to Bates Hall, north of the Grand Stair, continues to serve as the primary access point to the Research Library Collection. Completed in March 1999, the space houses the Library catalog of holdings accessed via a network of computers that replaced the card catalog which served patrons for more than one hundred years. The existing casework and balcony were among the primary elements restored; new casework, service desk, and lighting were introduced.

The Elliott Room will be a public reading room. Existing woodwork, wall coverings, and lighting were restored, and the ceiling mural, The Triumph of Time by John Elliott, was conserved by fine art specialists.

Non-historic renovation work focused on the Northwest Corridor, the Newspaper Reading Room, and the Microtext Room, as well as administrative office and stack areas. In all cases, the intent is to refurbish the spaces and improve their functionality while retaining, where possible, any unique elements of historic character.

The Northwest Corridor design attempts to provide a more clear, direct connection between the Johnson Building and the McKim Building at both main floor levels by removing a significant portion of the existing construction that is non-historic and dysfunctional. The creation of a newly placed northwest stair and public hall attempts to make clear the primary circulation paths -- both horizontal and vertical. The closely related departments of Microtext, Newspapers, and Periodicals now serve Library users in direct proximity with each other. Such interdepartmental adjacencies were not been feasible in the past.

The Newspaper Reading Room was rehabilitated and furnished with a combination of new and restored furniture. Adjustments to the layout included relocating of the service desk; replacement of large amounts of casework, furniture, and lighting to better support departmental service needs.

The Microtext Room serves the public from a new location literally carved out of a portion of the existing non-historic stack areas of the building directly adjacent to the new Northwest Corridor. All aspects of this space are new, and details are reserved so as not to compete with any of the original ornate detailing by McKim.  This area was opened for public service in January 2000.

Building Conservation Associates completed an Historic Structure Report dated December 1998 for the landmark building designed by Charles McKim.  A new master plan for the BPL's central library was completed in September 1999 by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates.  The plan included both the McKim building and the 1972 addition designed by Philip Johnson.

McKim Project, Phase IIb

The Phase IIb contruction restored the interior Courtyard to its original design by McKim. In addition to landscaping, painting, restoring the fountain, cleaning and repairing the courtyard masonry, the area was made handicapped accessible. The roof of the McKim building was also extensively repaired. The Bacchante and Infant Faun statue by Frederick MacMonnies was reinstalled, the arcade roof was replaced, and a promenade atop the arcade was rehabilitated. This work was completed in November 2000.

McKim Project, Phase IIc

Phase IIc renovations and restorations for the Book Delivery Room known as the Edwin Austin Abbey Room, the old Trustees Room, the John Singer Sargent Gallery, and the Cheverus Room began in late 2002.  The firm of Shepley Bulfinch Richardson and Abbott has been recommissioned for this phase of the project and Lee Kennedy, Inc. is the project contractor.