Lamps of Learning at the West Branch Library

Somerville Public Library West Branch vintage postcard

Next time you are out and about by the West Branch Library in Davis Square - since we can't yet go in - take a moment to appreciate the details of the entrance to the building that has welcomed readers for more than 100 years. Lamps are positioned on either side of the staircase, and on the landing at the top of the stairs, two columns frame the doorway, supporting a triangular pediment over the door. Look up above the pediment, and you’ll see another pair of lamps on either side, though they are ornamental and symbolic rather than functional. The lamps are styled after Roman oil lamps, and they are lit in full flame. Somerville Public Library West Branch 1909 photograph

Often called lamps of learning, these flaming ornamental lamps signify the light of knowledge, and they frame another group of symbolic ornaments in the center of the triangular pediment: an open book (learning) surrounded by a laurel wreath (victory). Vines and flowers appear to spring from the book, which suggests learning as the root that leads to the flowering of civilization.

Such ornament was common in Classical Revival style buildings, of which ours is a prime example, resembling a late-Italian Renaissance villa, according to the Massachusetts Historical Commission report for the building.

When Mayor John Woods spoke at the dedication of the building on May 26, 1909 (yes, it’s West’s 111th birthday this month!) he invoked the symbolism of the design and ornaments: “The intellectual spirit is light-producing; darkness flees before it. It is light in one’s own being, light in human is a powerful headlight making distant pathways plain.”

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