Boston Globe – At the Athenaeum: Boston on fire then, the Athenaeum renovated now
At the Athenaeum: Boston on fire then, the Athenaeum renovated now
An exhibition looks at the Great Boston Fire of 1872, another shows the library spiffing up
By Mark Feeney Globe Staff, Updated April 12, 2023
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Over the course of 20 hours on Nov. 9-10, 1872, much of what is now Downtown Crossing and the Financial District burned down. What became known as the Great Boston Fire destroyed 776 buildings, consuming 65 acres of the city’s main commercial district. That area is nearly as large as Boston Common and the Public Garden combined.
“Revisiting the Ruins: The Great Boston Fire of 1872″ looks at the conflagration and its aftermath. The exhibition, which runs through July 29 at the Boston Athenaeum, does double duty. It’s art show as history lesson, it’s history lesson as art show, and quite good at both.
The show’s curator is the Athenaeum’s Christina Michelon.
“Revisiting” comprises some 70 items. They include, as one might expect, photographs, paintings, prints, and a map. There are also 36 stereographs. A stereograph is a pair of very similar photographs which, when viewed through a stereoscope, give an illusion of depth. In a visitor-friendly touch, three viewers are available for use.
“Reviewing” also includes things one might not expect: a key to a building destroyed in the fire, a militia pass allowing the bearer entry to the burnt district, a teenager’s journal, a piece of sheet music, and a “relic” of the fire: a piece of once-melted metal, wrapped in newsprint and string. It’s like a present one might find in Vulcan’s Christmas stocking. Best of all, in an inspired curatorial flourish, the fire alarm in the gallery (a Simplex TrueAlert) gets a wall label. It’s a reminder of the continuity between Boston then and Boston now — and of how far fire prevention has come.
The title “Revisiting the Ruins” has a double meaning. It describes what the show is doing but also what many of the works in the show were doing. Only James Wells Champney’s pencil sketch “Rooftop View of the Great Boston Fire, November 10, 1872″ was made as the fire was occurring. This means the show is as much about the fire’s aftermath as the fire itself. That may seem like an odd distinction today, when news media operate in real time. Back then, technological limitations dictated otherwise.
To give just one example, newspapers and magazines as yet didn’t have the means to reproduce photographs. Rather, an engraving would be made from a photograph, and that’s what readers would see. The show presents both James Wallace Black’s panoramic view of the devastation and an illustration closely derived from it which ran in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.
That weekly magazine was based in New York. Coverage of the fire extended as far as England and France. The Nov. 30, 1872, issue of The Illustrated London News ran three engravings of the fire based on Black’s work. Both the photographs and the engravings are on display.
Black’s 13 photographs are the heart of the show. They’re straightforward and unflinching. The urban moonscape they capture looks like nothing so much as a war zone. The presence in the show of a photograph Alexander Gardner had taken seven years earlier of Richmond in ruins underscores the resemblance. Memories of the Civil War must have been in many Bostonians’ minds, as well as an awareness of a more recent event. The Great Chicago Fire had taken place just 13 months before.
Astonishingly, reconstruction was completed within two years (a good part of the rubble was used as landfill in Boston Harbor and to extend Atlantic Avenue). Much of downtown hadn’t been destroyed, of course. The steeple of Old South Meeting House is visible in several photographs. And the fire was contained just two blocks from the Athenaeum.
A very different sort of reconstruction is on display in Tira Khan’s “Reading the Room: Reconstructing the Boston Athenaeum,” which runs through May 13. Khan’s eight photographs are very handsome, with a fullness of color that’s almost tactile.
Her goal was to document the library’s recent renovation. “Patched and Spackled” is not a title one would normally associate with a view of the Athenaeum’s interior, though others, like “Circulation” and “The Paper Room” one would. These photographs, not unlike that fire-alarm wall label in “Revisiting the Ruins,” testify to continuity, in this case institutional.
At: Boston Athenaeum, 10½ Beacon St., through July 29 and May 13, respectively. 617-227-0270, bostonathenaeum.org