Hub of the Universe: Boston in the Gilded Age

In 1858, Oliver Wendell Holmes described Boston\’s State House as the \”hub of the solar system\” : the exact center of the universe was marked by a bronze plaque in Downtown Crossing. Hyperbole aside, it is true that in the Gilded Age (1870-1914), Boston emerged as a great showplace of architecture in America, that these buildings still constitute the backbone of its urban character, and that they are not adequately understood. In this course, we explore the age of transition to modern, secular society within the urban and architectural history of Boston from its settlement (1630), asking what architectural styles reveal about institutional, civic, and individual identity. We also look more broadly at nineteenth century material and intellectual culture, especially historicism: How can modern identities and visions of the future be shaped through selective choices from the past? As faith-based organizations responded to challenges from science, industrialization, and urbanization, previously marginal institutions like libraries, museums, and universities replaced churches as the principal targets of public interest, expenditure, and civic pride. In Boston\’s newly-created Back Bay (1850s), paradigms of both Gilded Age anxieties and aspirations were established when the Boston Public Library (1888-95, McKim, Mead, and White architects)was erected facing Trinity Church (1872-77, H.H. Richardson architect) across an irregularly-shaped, un-built area at the edge of town, now Copley Square. These and other great buildings like Boston\’s MFA were erected for knowledge and art, buildings whose almost sacral significance for modern life was explicated through the lavish paintings and sculpture of their decorative programs. This American Renaissance — Boston was called \”America\’s Assisi\” — was exemplified first in Boston\’s new buildings. The unity of the arts was not only the ideal of the Arts and Crafts movement — pioneered by LaFarge\’s Boston stained glass — but inspired both the establishment of a program in architecture at Harvard (1896) and the American Academy in Rome (1905), of which Harvard was a founding member.The course includes site visits to buildings in Boston, museum collections, and other archival collections. Readings are from contemporaneous sources as well as recent historical studies.Please note the following scheduled field trip dates (subject to change): Feb.16, Feb. 25; March 4, March 18, March 30, April 8, and April 15.