A View of the Old West Church: A Branch of the Boston Public Library. With Mr. Updike's New Year's Greetings ... 1914.
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This view of the Old West Church in Boston, engraved by Rudolph Ruzicka, is one of a series of annual keepsakes printed by the Merrymount Press between 1903 and 1942. The Latin quotation is from Proverbs 22:28 and reads in translation: “Remove not the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set.” By 1914, the church, designed by Asher Benjamin in 1806, had become a busy branch in the Boston Public Library system.
“Printing became the occupation of my life by pure accident”: Daniel Berkeley Updike and the Merrymount Press
Born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1860, Daniel Berkeley Updike spent his youth in Rhode Island libraries, including a stint as a library assistant at the Portsmouth Athenaeum. In 1880, he accepted a position as an errand boy with Houghton, Mifflin & Company in Boston, a position that sparked his lifelong passion for the art and craft of printing. He worked at Houghton, Mifflin and its Riverside Press until 1893 when he launched his own printing house, later named Merrymount Press. “Merrymount” was the name of a ribald non-Puritan colony in seventeenth-century New England, although Updike claimed that he took the name from his fancy that one could simultaneously work hard and have a good time.
In forty nine years as the proprietor of the Merrymount Press, Updike designed and printed typographically distinguished publications for well-heeled clients like Isabella Stewart Gardner, liturgical works for the Episcopal Church, and noteworthy editions of the works of Edith Wharton and others for mainstream publishers like Scribner’s. The Press also produced a wide variety of—always high quality—job printing projects for such organizations as the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston Athenaeum, and Grolier Club. In 1903 when he began to circulate annual keepsakes to the friends of his press, Updike was already well known for the high standard of art and craftsmanship of his work. He died on 29 December 1941, just as his last keepsake (for 1942) appeared.
Rudolph Ruzicka was born in Bohemia in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1883 and came to the United States the following year. He grew up in Chicago, studying part-time at Hull House and the Art Institute while he worked in an engraving shop as a teenage apprentice. He moved to New York in 1903 and had a long and distinguished career as an artist, wood engraver, and type and medal designer. Ruzicka illustrated many of the works of the Merrymount Press and with one exception, all of the annual keepsakes from 1912 onward. Ruzicka recollected that the New Year’s cards he designed were originally proposed by John Bianchi, Daniel Berkeley Updike’s shop manager and later his business partner, but that the subject (too often a red brick church, at least one friend complained) in most cases was suggested by Updike himself who also supplied the “usually apt” Latin inscription. Ruzicka lived on until 1978, having the unusual honor of sometimes receiving a certificate or diploma that he had designed himself.
The Old West Church
The subject of the 1914 keepsake, Boston’s Old West Church, had been designed and built for the West Boston (Congregational) Society by Asher Benjamin in 1806. Although the West Boston Society was incorporated that year, the congregation (Boston’s “Ninth Church”) was formed in 1737 and the new meetinghouse was built on the site of a previous church building. Benjamin, a builder who also designed homes and published architectural plan books, was born in Connecticut in 1773. He moved to Boston in 1803, where he continued his residential work, but also turned to the design of public buildings. He used his plans for the West Church as a model for an urban meeting house in his American Builder’s Companion, published while the church was still under construction in 1806.
In 1806, the West End of Boston was becoming an increasingly fashionable residential neighborhood in what were still the outskirts of Boston, but over the ensuing decades, Boston expanded extremely rapidly, leaving the Unitarian Old West Church, “which thy fathers have set,” out of step in the midst of a richly diverse and densely populated recent immigrant community. The congregation decreased rapidly after the Civil War and disbanded in 1889. The West Boston Society dissolved in 1893 and the church building threatened with destruction. In 1894, the city rescued the building and it became the largest branch in the Boston Public Library system, continuing in that active community role until 1962, when Boston built a new West End branch library. The existence of the “ancient landmark” was thus threatened again, but it was saved for a second time in 1964 and returned to its original purpose as a meetinghouse, this time for a congregation of the United Methodist Church, aptly named the “Old West Church.”
Benjamin, Asher and Daniel Raynard. The American Builder’s Companion, or a New System of Architecture…. Boston: Etheridge and Bliss, 1806.
Plate 39 is a floor plan and elevation for West Church, then under construction, as a model for an urban meetinghouse. The entire book is available online as part of the University of Wisconsin Digital Collections: Digital Library for the Decorative Arts and Material Culture.
Updike, Daniel Berkeley. Notes on the Merrymount Press & Its Work. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1934.
Pages 271-272 comprise a checklist of Merrymount Press annual keepsakes, 1903-1934.
Updike: American Printer and His Merrymount Press. New York: American Institute of Graphic Arts, 1947.
This volume of essays on Updike’s life and work reprints his “Notes on the Press and Its Work” (see above), but without the appended bibliography (p. 7-35), and Rudolph Ruzicka’s recollections of working with Updike, “Fragments of Memory,” (p. 118-129).
Voye, Nancy S. “Asher Benjamin’s West Church: A Model for Change.” Old-Time New England, vol. 67, no. 245, Summer-Fall 1976, 7-15.
West Boston Society. West Boston Society records, 1805-1908. Massachusetts Historical Society.
The MHS holds one box of records of the West Church, including material on the construction of the new meeting house, 1805-1809, and the dissolution of the church in 1892-1893.
Whitehill, Walter Muir. Boston Public Library: a Centennial History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956.
Rudolph Ruzicka illustrated Whitehill’s history of the Boston Public Library, which includes a brief history of the role of the West Church as a branch public library (p. 125-127).