This stunning view is of the George Peabody Library, currently affiliated with Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. As you can plainly see it’s one of the most beautiful libraries in the world. The building was completed in 1878 and typifies grandiose late-19th century architecture, especially that favored by gentleman philanthropists like Peabody. The atrium is 61 feet above the floor and is girded by heavily decorated cast-iron elements supporting the skylight. The faux columns are Corinthian in design, suggesting the Classical past. The wrought iron screens on the railings are particularly ornate.
George Peabody was a businessman, originally from New England, who moved to Baltimore in 1816 and began riding the wave of financial and market development of the new United States that followed the end of the War of 1812. Railroads provided the real boom, and Peabody grew rich backing various railroad-related ventures in the United States and Britain. He moved permanently to London in the 1830s, but spent lavish amounts of his money on foundations, trusts, libraries and museums in the United States. This one was one of them. Peabody wanted the library to be open to anyone free of charge. He died in 1869 before it was completed, but it has largely remained true to his original vision.
This room clearly represents both the hubris and the benevolence of the great 19th century philanthropists. They wanted the world to be aware of their wealth, influence and taste, but also their concern for fellow citizens. Libraries are one of the most permanent and useful public works that any civilization can create, and we simply can’t have enough for them or spend enough to create and maintain them. Rooms like this one embody the tradition of learning and preservation of knowledge that is as old as humanity itself.