Alliance Archives

About AllianceViews

This blog is a place for dialogue on issues and actions relating to Boston's unique built environment and the preservation and continuing evolution of historic resources within it. My goal, as the Executive Director of the Boston Preservation Alliance, is to post timely, relevant and thought-provoking intelligence, ideas, and insights that will engage conversations, inform our actions, and broaden perspectives on preservation.

We want to hear from you — so start a conversation, share a thought or comment, and let us know what you think.

Greg Galer, Executive Director, Boston Preservation Alliance

Executive Director

AllianceViews Blog

2017 Preservation Achievement Award Winner: Boston Public Library Philosophy Mural

In conjunction with our 29th Annual Preservation Achievement Awards, we are profiling each of the 2017 winning projects over the next several weeks. Follow this series to get a special look at projects that honor and update the character of Boston.

July 27th, 2017  |  Posted by: Boston Preservation Alliance

The sense of grandeur the path of procession into the McKim building of the Boston Public Library’s Central Library conjures is the result of careful design upon its creation and at every step of its recent (emergency) restoration. Architect Charles Follen McKim believed that in order for citizens to become educated, they had to be inspired by both their studies and their surroundings. For this reason, he commissioned the great nineteenth century muralist, French painter Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898), to adorn the grand staircase with eight murals emblematic of intellectual disciplines. His depictions of pastoral (Virgil), dramatic (Æschylus and the Oceanides), and epic poetry (Homer), history, astronomy, philosophy, chemistry, and physics represent the quests for knowledge that this space is meant to inspire. The murals became so integral to the space and were united with the architecture to such an extent that in an 1896 letter to John Singer Sargent about the entrance, McKim wrote, “The public have hailed it by common acclaim. He has made it his staircase rather than that of McKim, Meade & White and I am sure that it cannot fail to deeply impress you.”


Although the mural cycle appears to be painted directly on the walls, the series was actually created using oils on linen canvases in France and installed using the marouflage technique. Nearing the end of his life, Chavannes was reluctant to make the trip to Boston when the work was commissioned. Instead, models, dimensions of the space, and samples of the staircase’s yellow Sienna marble were sent to the artist so that he could consider the aesthetics and proportions of the far away site. The cycle remains the artist’s only work preserved outside of his home country. Although these fresco-like murals were constructed in an untraditional way, they were certainly never meant to be separated from their walls once they were installed.

In late 2014, it was determined that one of the murals had slowly been amassing water damage over the last decade from the elevator shaft behind it. The Philosophy Mural, one of the most acclaimed items in the collection, is a representation of conversation and debate within a setting that is reminiscent of the Ancient Greek Lyceum. About eighty percent of the mural had detached from its plaster backing, leaving the entire panel at risk of collapse. Boston Public Library’s team sprang into action and enlisted the help of the head of conservation at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Gianfranco Pocobene, who in turn enlisted his seasoned mentor, Ian Hodkinson. This conservation emergency was even more intimidating because the construction, scale, and fragility of the mural was unprecedented. In order for the restoration to begin, the mural had to be taken completely off of the plaster wall that it had been adhered to for over 120 years. The conservators built scale models to test their plans before attempting to apply the procedure to the actual mural. This process required extremely innovative thinking from the team. Even with their care and precision, there were unknown variables hidden behind the mural itself. The team had no way of knowing the condition of the brick and ironwork which lay beyond the damaged plaster. Fortunately, the brick and iron—which were exposed for the first time since the construction in 1896—were intact, and so the team began to gradually free the mural’s panel from its niche.

Pre restoration

Color indicates water damage

Post restoration












The team successfully removed, restored, and reinstalled the mural with a new honeycomb backing to protect it, saving it from disintegration and returning it to its rightful place among the series. Even under the pressure of this emergency conservation predicament, the team’s work was poised, thoughtful, and exhibited groundbreaking technique. With the major renovation of the Johnson in full swing, this project was still afforded the immediate attention it deserved. That balance demonstrates the sincerity of the library’s devotion to its responsibility for protecting and sharing the treasures it possesses.



Project Details: 700 Boylston Street, Copley Square
Owner/Developer: Boston Public Library
Project Team: D. Fisher Construction LLC,  Fields of Vision, Gianfranco Pocobene Studio, Heritage Planning & Design, Ivan Myjer Building & Monument Conservation, Marr Scaffolding Company

Written and researched by Jessica Saunders

Please follow and like us:

Leave a Comment