By Jessica Bowne
November 17, 2016
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Turn any corner in Boston and you are bound to run into a landmark, from the gold-domed State House to the unmistakably-green Fenway Park. But nothing is as much of a gathering place as the Boston Public Library. Known simply as the BPL to locals, the Central Branch was designed by architect Charles Follen McKim of McKim, Mead, and White, and opened in 1895. Once called "the palace of the people" by McKim, the library overlooks Copley Square and the Dartmouth and Boylston thoroughfares—and it's a joyous sight for Boston Marathon runners as they cross the finish line. In the holiday season, its facade shines with a 3D light display, and throughout the year it serves as a luxury wedding venue. Best of all, the much-anticipated second phase of the Central Library's renovations are now complete, bringing modern computer systems and updated interiors to the prestigious institution. But for travelers more interested in digging their heels into history, here are nine secrets you didn't know about the Boston Public Library.

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It contains one of only three murals by John Singer Sargent.

Full disclosure: All three of John Singer Sargent's murals are actually in the Boston area, with the other two at the Museum of Fine Arts and Harvard's Widener Library. But the mural at the Boston Public Library is especially interesting because Sargent deviated from his normal portraits of wealthy individuals and lush landscapes to paint in the style of Renaissance frescoes in the third-floor gallery. His topic of choice? World religions.

The Singer Sargent works aren't the only murals at the Boston Public Library.

The other murals were done by Edwin Austin Abbey in the eponymous Abbey Room (he depicts the legend of King Arthur in the Quest of the Holy Grail on 15 panels), and by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, on the walls of the grand staircase and second-floor gallery in the McKim building. His works illustrate the muses of poetry, philosophy, and science.

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Only one public library can compete

It is the second largest public library in the United States. With more than 23 million items across books, CDs, DVDs, music scores, maps, and manuscripts, it stands only second to the Library of Congress.

Boston's rivalry with New York jump started the building of a public library.

Competitions between Boston and New York are as old as both cities, but it took John Jacob Astor bestowing $400,000 upon his death in 1848 to the New York Public Library for Bostonians to get serious about having their own.

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A Frenchman set about unifying Boston's libraries.

Bostonians are no stranger to help from the French—the country's aid played a large role in the colonies' revolt against England—but starting in 1839, Paris-born Nicholas Marie Alexandre Vattemare urged his hometown to donate books to help start a central unified library in Boston. The Boston Public Library was formally founded in 1848, and the opening of the East Boston branch in 1870 made it the first branch library in the United States.

There's an enviable collection of rare books and artwork.

The library owns first edition folios by William Shakespeare, the papers of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, original music scores by Mozart and Prokofiev, and even the personal library of second President John Adams. Also in the collection are engravings and etchings by Rembrandt and Albrecht Dürer.

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Award-winning films have used it as a backdrop.

Pink Panther 2, The Box, and Academy Award-winning Spotlight all had scenes filmed at the Boston Public Library. Filmmakers aren't the only ones who love its iconic façade: the McKim building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1986 for the Renaissance Beaux-Arts Classic style of architecture.

World-class music takes center stage at the library.

On Wednesday evenings and Friday afternoons throughout the summer, the library's Italianate courtyard is filled with the sounds of music from across the globe, including a five-piece jazz band, mandolin, and 10-string guitar. Visitors and locals can take in the free concerts while lounging at café tables throughout the courtyard.

It's the library of the future.

Architect Philip Johnson enlarged the library with an addition in 1972 and now that space has undergone a $78 million renovation. The BPL opened the first phrase of the renovation in February 2015, with a Children's Library and an area specifically designed for teenagers with a media lounge and digital lab. The second phase ushered in a more welcoming façade for the Johnson building, a WGBH television studio, and a café.