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Commission appears poised to declare former Transcendentalist bookstore a landmark

Posted by Jeremy C. Fox  September 15, 2011 02:25 PM

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Elizabeth Peabody Bookstore and Circulating Library

(Jeremy C. Fox for

Today, the Elizabeth Peabody Bookstore and Circulating Library building is the site of Max & Dylan’s Kitchen and Bar.

The Boston Landmarks Commission appears likely to designate a former home, bookstore, and circulating library on West Street as a city landmark, requiring that any future changes to the building’s exterior receive commission approval.

A staff report presented to the commission this week found several significant historical and architectural reasons to list the building — currently the home of Max & Dylan’s Kitchen and Bar — as a landmark, and all testimony and letters submitted at the meeting supported the designation.

The structure at 13-15 West St. is a three-story rowhouse from the late Federal period, the only remnant of four that once stood at 9-23 West St. The building is among the last remaining Federal period rowhouses in the downtown business district, though others remain on Beacon Hill.

It was built between 1814 and 1820, and in 1840 became the home, bookstore, and circulating library of the Transcendentalist writer, publisher, and teacher Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, who later opened the first English-language kindergarten in the US.

Peabody’s bookstore and library helped introduce Bostonians to the European literature that inspired the Transcendentalist movement, and her parlor was a gathering place its leaders, including her friend Ralph Waldo Emerson. Peabody was one of only three female members of the Transcendental Club, which met for the final time at the bookstore in September 1840, the only time a woman hosted a gathering of the club.

The editors and contributors of “The Dial,” the Transcendental periodical, also met at the bookstore, and Peabody would become the publication’s publisher from 1842 – 1843. She also published the journal “Aesthetic Papers,” where Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” first appeared.

The writer and early feminist Margaret Fuller hosted her series of conversations for the wives, sisters, and daughters of Transcendentalist men at the house, helping to inspire early advocates for women’s rights and female suffrage. And the organizers of the Brook Farm Institute of Agriculture and Education met there as they planned the utopian community they would build in West Roxbury.

During the Peabodys’ residency, the building also served as a school for girls, a homeopathic apothecary, a publishing house, and an artist’s studio for Elizabeth Peabody’s youngest sister Sophia, who would marry author Nathaniel Hawthorne in the home in 1842. The next year, the middle Peabody sister, Mary, wed the educational reformer Horace Mann there.

“This building is clearly highly significant,” said Sarah D. Kelly, executive director of the Boston Preservation Alliance, “for its social meaning; its association with the Transcendental Movement; as one of very few women-owned bookstores at the time; for its association with Elizabeth Peabody and many, many others; and also for its distinctive architectural characteristics, as one of the last remaining examples of its kind in the Central Business District.”

Phyllis Cole, a professor of English, women’s studies, and American studies at Pennsylvania State University’s Brandywine campus who has studied the Transcendental Movement for 35 years, offered three reasons for designating the building as a landmark.

First, Cole said, it was one of two gathering places for the Transcendentalists, the other being Emerson’s home in Concord, Mass. Second, it is one of few surviving sites related to the women of the movement. Third, there is a growing interest among academics in the history of the book itself, and this is the site that “imported Europe into the American mind for the city of Boston.”

The commission also heard testimony from Lynn Hind, the Seattle resident who proposed the site as a Boston landmark, and read into the record three letters in support, including one from Megan Marshall, the Emerson College professor who wrote “The Peabody Sisters,” a 2006 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in biography. No speaker opposed designation, and no letters of opposition had been received.

No date has yet been set for the board’s vote. The commission will accept signed, written testimony until 5 p.m. Friday, Sept. 16. Testimony may be delivered by hand to the commission’s office at Boston City Hall Room 805, sent by fax to 617-635-3435, or submitted as a PDF to

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Elizabeth Peabody Bookstore and Circulating Library 2

(Bostonian Society/Boston Landmarks Commission)

A view of West Street from Tremont Street, around 1865. The Elizabeth Peabody Bookstore and Circulating Library had closed about 13 years earlier. It stood on the left side of the street, far down in the distance.

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