Just inside the grand, arched entryway to The Boston Globe’s headquarters, there is a map like no other. It’s a two-story-tall, three-dimensional relief map of New England carved out of huge slabs of white marble. And it’s gorgeous.
It’s the sort of one-of-a-kind treasure that belongs in the signature building of a storied institution like The Globe. I first saw the map in October while attending a reception hosted by the paper, and I fell in love immediately.
But this amazing map’s future is uncertain.
Like many newspapers across the country, The Globe is relocating to a smaller office space to save money. When I heard about this in December, my first thought was of the map. What would become of it?
“We certainly have no room for it in the new space,” Globe CEO Mike Sheehan told me. The map is 18 feet tall, 12 feet wide, weighs more than 4 tons, and pretty much demands an enormous room. “We’re in the process of looking for a new home for it.”
The good news is that Sheehan appreciates the unique value of the map. “It’s a beautiful piece, and a part of our heritage,” he said. “We certainly want it to be in a public place where people will see it.”
If you’re associated with an institution in New England that has a huge blank wall, maybe you can help.
In the meantime, I wanted to know where this masterpiece came from. With the help of Globe reporter and fellow maphead Dan Adams and several archivists and librarians, I pieced together the map’s history.
The map’s original owner was the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. This explains the metal symbols, including ships, gears, and shoes, that are scattered across the map. A brochure about the map from the bank’s archives reads: “The symbols on the map represent the many forms of activity which provide income and employment for our six-state region.” There are symbols representing quarries in several states, a cranberry scoop on Cape Cod, and of course a lobster in Maine.
The map was commissioned for a 1953 addition to the Boston Fed’s headquarters on Pearl Street. It stood at the top of a flight of stairs and was the focal point of the foyer of this grand building, which also had 22-foot tall mahogany doors at its entrance and an 18-ton limestone eagle perched atop it.
The map’s creator was Austin Purves, a multitalented artist whose other work includes paintings, murals, sculptures and an 11-foot wide aluminum map of the world for the ocean liner SS America. The details of the map’s coastline and relief must have taken Purves years to execute. The contour lines are fairly general, but features like the Connecticut River Valley and the White Mountains stand out beautifully. Maine’s complicated coastline is highly detailed, and the huge swath of Atlantic Ocean on the map is carved into a wave pattern.
The marble for the map came from Vermont and was most likely provided by the Vermont Marble Company, once the largest marble manufacturer in the world. The company’s marble was used in monuments all over the world, including the Jefferson Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and the U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C., as well as the United Nations headquarters in New York City. The company was bought in 1976 by Omya, a Swiss industrial mineral company.
The Boston Fed building was razed in 1978 after the bank moved. This is when the map came to The Globe’s headquarters, where it has greeted journalists on their way to the newsroom for the last 38 years.
I couldn’t find a record of how they managed to move the giant map 3.5 miles to its current home, but it may have been shortened by about three feet in order to fit. The Boston Fed listed it as 21 feet tall, but a plaque next to the map at The Globe says 18 feet. Looking closely at the photo of the map hanging at the bank, it appears that a chunk of Canada has gone missing from the top of the map, and some of the Atlantic Ocean was trimmed from. The map gained a black frame made of Italian marble, but a few of the metal symbols have disappeared.
Sheehan, The Globe’s CEO, says he has no idea how it is attached to the wall, but it looks like it’s made of nine separate slabs that presumably come apart—good news for potential new owners.
Personally I’d love to see the map in a museum or public library (I’m looking at you, Boston Public Library), but I could also picture it in the lobby of a grand old Boston hotel, or perhaps a train station or other geographically-minded place. And it would seem fitting that its new home be somewhere within the map’s borders.
Many thanks to Globe reporter Dan Adams, Globe librarian Lisa Tuite and Boston Federal Reserve Bank archivist Joyce Hannan for their help tracking down the map’s history.