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How a Diva Poet Saved the Boston Athenaeum

The Boston Athenaeum, a National Historic Landmark on Beacon Hill, would have been torn down and lost to history had a diva poet not saved it.

diva poet amy lowell

Amy Lowell (Photo: New York Public Library)

Amy Lowell was 26, and not yet a poet but certainly a diva when she began her crusade to save the elegant old library.  She was born in 1874 into the Lawrence and Lowell families. Her paternal grandfather, John Amory Lowell, and her maternal grandfather, Abbott Lawrence, developed textile mills in Lawrence and Lowell, Mass.

Amy was wealthy, independent and obese, the result of a glandular problem that developed in her teens. Her debut season was ruined and she didn’t find a husband. Her parents wouldn’t let her attend college, believing it unseemly for a Lowell girl. (Her brother Abbott would become president of Harvard University.) Amy found solace in the quiet old Athenaeum that her great-great-grandfather helped found in 1807.

By 1901, Amy was an unmarried, gay, eccentric woman. So when the Boston Athenaeum proprietors voted that May to sell the building and land and move to a new Arlington Street facility, the odds were against Lowell saving what had been the center of intellectual life in Boston.

But Amy Lowell did what she wanted and got what she wanted. She slept all day and went to the opera, theatre or dinner parties in the evening. Afterward she would work until dawn reading and writing. She entertained frequently in Brookline, her satin gown and jewels accentuating her cigar, her pince-nez and her hair gathered in a bun. Her butler gave dinner guests bath towels to protect them from her ‘children’ – seven sheepdogs.

When she traveled by rail, she would ask for a hammer if her sleeping car was too stuffy. Then she’d smash the glass and tell the conductor to send her the bill. Hotels were instructed to put 16 pillows on her bed, shroud the mirrors in black and stop all clocks in her room because she liked quiet.

One reason she fought the Boston Athenaeum’s move was the constant noise of the horses’ hooves and electric trolleys on the asphalt pavement of Arlington Street. Another was the new building’s design – “dreary” in the words of a detractor. It was nothing like the neo-Palladian sandstone façade of the old Boston Athenaeum, which overlooked the Old Granary Burying Ground and stood across from the Bullfinch Statehouse. And she no doubt had a strong attachment to the traditions of an institution to which had belonged John Quincy Adams, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Daniel Webster and Lydia Maria Child.

diva poet saved the Boston AthenaeumAmy Lowell and her friend Elizabeth Ward Perkins waged a spirited campaign to preserve the old building.  One bold tactic was to run for two of the 15 seats on the Boston Athenaeum’s board of trustees. When the election was held on Feb. 9, 1903, both women lost. However Lowell’s brother Dr. Lawrence Lowell won one of the seats.

The Lowells scored another victory that day: Opinions were divided on the proposed sale. A motion was proposed to postpone action on it, and it passed. An angry William Sloan Kennedy wrote to the Boston Evening Transcript complaining “two ladies had discourteously defeated two years’ unremunerated labor of the self-sacrificing trustees who had worked on plans for removal.”

Another Lowell brother – Percival, the Harvard astronomer -- shot back on his sister’s behalf. “Our forefathers spent all their time cutting down all the trees they could lay their hands on, we are now spending time and money planting others,” he wrote.

Amy soldiered on in her campaign to save the building. She already had two voting shares in the Athenaeum inherited from her father and grandfather, so she bought another one. She drafted a circular denouncing the proposed sale and persuaded three proprietors to sign it. The circular read, in part, “Too late we have regretted the destruction of some of Boston’s most interesting landmarks – Hancock Mansion, Province House, etc.” It cited Augustus St. Gaudens’ praise of the façade and pleaded, “Let us preserve this old-time library, its atmosphere, traditions, associations, its quiet and peaceful outlook.”

A postcard vote was taken. When the ballots came in, 349 stockholders voted to stay, 284 to move. Amy Lowell had carried the day.

The land on Arlington Street was sold. By 1906, the Athenaeum was repaired, cleaned, painted, heated, strengthened, fireproofed and modernized. It is now open for tours on Tuesdays and Thursdays – and for membership.

Amy Lowell started to write poetry while she was fighting to save the Athenaeum. She threw herself into the new Imagist style and fiercely supported the modernist poet Ezra Pound, who didn’t always appreciate her help. She became such a celebrity that letters addressed to “Amy Lowell, Poet, Boston,” reached her.

Today on the Boston Athenaeum’s website, Rachel Jirka posted, “She was a forceful voice for modern poetry in the early 20th century, and it is thanks to Amy Lowell that the Modernist movement developed in American literature and culture.”

Amy Lowell died in 1920 of a stroke at the age of 51. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry posthumously in 1926. We are indebted to the essay Poet, Boston, by Laurie Hillyer, from Mad and Magnificent Yankees for this article.

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