Arts and Leisure

How Diva Poet Amy Lowell Saved the Boston Athenaeum

Amy Lowell was 26, and not yet a poet but certainly a diva when she began her crusade to save the elegant old Boston Athenaeum.  Born into two wealthy Brahmin families, she was used to getting what she wanted. Many times she had taken refuge in Beacon Hill’s private library, and she wanted it saved.

Amy Lowell. Photo courtesy New York Public Library

Amy Lowell

She was born in 1874 into the Lawrence and Lowell families. Her paternal grandfather, John Amory Lowell, and her maternal grandfather, Abbott Lawrence, amassed fortunes by developing 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 weight ruined her debut and she didn’t find a husband. Her parents wouldn’t let her attend college, believing it unseemly for a Lowell girl. (Lawrence, her brother, would become president of Harvard University.) She compensated by reading voraciously. Amy found solace in the quiet old Athenaeum, which her great-great-grandfather helped found in 1807.

Amy Lowell, child of privilege

By 1901, Amy was an unmarried, gay, eccentric woman. 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.

Saving the Boston Athenaeum

The board of trustees wanted to sell the old building and move to newly fashionable Arlington Street in Back Bay.

The constant noise of the horses’ hooves and electric trolleys on the asphalt pavement of Arlington Street was one reason Amy Lowell wanted to save the old Athenaeum. The proposed new building’s design provided another reason – “dreary” in the words of a detractor. It bore no resemblance to the neo-Palladian sandstone façade of the old Boston Athenaeum.

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The Boston Athenaeum today

The library 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.

Amy Lowell and her friend Elizabeth Ward Perkins began a 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. Both women lost the election, held on Feb. 9, 1903. However Lowell’s brother, Dr. Lawrence Lowell, won one of the seats.

Lawrence Lowell by John Singer Sargent

The Lowells scored another victory that day: Opinions were divided on the proposed sale. A motion passed to postpone action on it. An angry William Sloan Kennedy then 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.

Forceful

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 also 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.”

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The Boston Athenaeum in 1855

The members took a postcard vote. When the ballots came in, 349 stockholders voted to stay, 284 to move. Amy Lowell had carried the day.

The trustees then sold the land on Arlington Street. 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 Turns to Poetry

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

Amy Lowell on the cover of Time magazine, 1925

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 won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry posthumously in 1926.

With thanks to the essay Poet, Boston, by Laurie Hillyer, from Mad and Magnificent Yankees for this article. Image of the Boston Athenaeum CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=722802. This story last updated in 2021.

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