Monday, June 18, 2018

Colonial Boston in Miniature and in Giant Murals (in the same spot!)

1622 William Blaxton on the Shawmut Peninsula

On Newbury Street, right across from the New England Historic Genealogical Society, is the old New England Life Building.  It is known as The Newbry today. The main entrance is on 501 Boylston Street, but if you enter by the Newbury Street side and look to your left and to your right, there are four small dioramas set into the walls.  Each tiny masterpiece displays a scene from the origins of colonial Boston.  At the Boylston Street entrance is a massive lobby with eight murals showing Boston History up until the Revolutionary War (1622 – 1798).

The Boston Society of Natural History existed from 1830  until 1948 in Boston.  It was located in the financial district, and in 1864 it moved to 234 Berkeley Street in the new Back Bay neighborhood created by a massive landfill project.  The society evolved later into what is now the Boston Museum of Science, and removed from Back Bay to Cambridge.

These four intricate dioramas were built for the Boston Society of Natural History in 1863.  This museum was right on this block at the corner of Boylston and Berkeley Streets, and it is now recently the Louis Boston building, and is now a branch store of Restoration Hardware.  These miniature scenes were created by a woman, Sarah Ann Rockwell, and the painted backgrounds were done by Henry Brooks.  The first diorama displays a scene from pre-colonial contact, with Native Americans setting fish weirs in Back Bay. The second shows William Blaxton (AKA Blackstone) and his little settlement on the Shawmut peninsula. The third shows workers filling in Back Bay in 1858.  The fourth shows the miniature Boston Society of Natural History building described above, and Rogers Hall, which was the first MIT building in Back Bay (1866 – 1938).

Native American fishing weirs in Back Bay

1858 filling in Back Bay

1866 The Boston Society of Natural Science and MIT's Rogers Building
 According to the book Boston Curiosities, Sarah Ann Rockwell was a perfectionist.  She took two weeks to make a human diorama figure and a month to make a tiny horse. She researched the history of Back Bay, and even used original blueprints of the buildings in the fourth diorama to create the mini structures.

Charles Constantin Joseph Hoffbauer (1875 – 1957) was a French born Beaux Arts artist who worked for Disney and created several famous murals, including the mural inside the Battle Abbey in Richmond, Virginia started in 1913, and finished after he served for France in World War I.  Hoffbauer was hired by New England Life to create the murals for their new lobby.  He spent five months in Boston researching the local history.  Then he painted these murals in Hollywood, California and they were installed in Boston in May 1942 for a convention, then removed for final details and reinstalled four months later.  Hoffbauer became an American citizen in 1941, and later lived in Rockport, Massachusetts.

Building the USS Constitution
The Winthrop Fleet

This lobby is open to the public, but I always ask the guard at the lobby desk for permission to linger and loiter.  Most people rush right past these works of art to the elevators, but if you want to take in all the details you will be here for at least a few minutes, if not more!

For more information:

Boston Curiosities:  Quirky Characters, Roadside Oddities, and other Offbeat Stuff, by Bruce Gellerman and Erik Sherman, Morris Book Publishing, Guilford, CT, 2010.

Charles Hoffbauer at Wikipedia: 

(I could find no information about artist Sarah Ann Rockwell online)


Heather Wilkinson Rojo, "Colonial Boston in Miniature and in Giant Murals (in the same spot!)", Nutfield Genealogy, posted June 18, 2018, ( accessed [access date]). 

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