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In 1930, Boston architect Chester Lindsay Churchill was commissioned to design the new Christian Science Publishing Society headquarters. As part of the design, Churchill suggested including a completely unique element: a three-story spherical globe room that would allow visitors to view a map of the world from inside the center.
In a July 6, 1933 letter to the Publishing House Building Committee, Churchill wrote, “I designed the Globe Room as a room to have interesting and unusual features, two of the prominent ones being—one, a glass bridge to serve it practically, and two, a certain type of map decoration to present artistically both the geographical and historical feature.”
This second feature, the ‘map decoration,’ came to realization in the form of vivid painted glass. Churchill purchased large glass panels from the Hope Glass Company in England, which were then shipped to the Rambusch Company in New York. Once there, Rambusch set about the task of creating the map in painted glass. Artists at Rand McNally in Chicago used their 1934 world map to create paper map overlays (known as cartoons) as templates for each panel. Rambusch artists then traced these maps onto 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick glass panels, and then painted them with a colored powdered glass mixture. Each panel was then fired in a kiln to fuse the color to the panel. Different colors required separate firings at temperatures ranging from 1,100 to 1,350 degrees Fahrenheit. To help maintain their exact curve and shape, panels were fired in asbestos cradles. It took eight months to paint and bake all 608 glass panels.
Construction on the Mapparium began in April 1934. By January 1935, the glass panels were being produced at a rate of about 50 per week. Churchill rushed to complete the entire project for June 1, 1935. As late as six weeks before the opening, Churchill telegraphed the Christian Science Publishing Building Committee, asking for a second kiln to aid in the glass firing. This was granted, and every effort was made to complete the job on time.
Once the panels were completed, they were fitted into the spherical bronze frame that holds the entire structure together. Finally, 300 light bulbs were installed to illuminate the globe from the outside. Total cost for the project was about $35,000. The result: An extraordinary piece of art and architecture that was then, and still is today, the only one of its kind.
An Old World. A New View.
Churchill called his new room the “Mapparium,” using the Latin terms mappa, “map” and “arium,” “a place for.” It was an immediate and overwhelming success. Within the first four months, more than 50,000 people came to view this amazing structure.
While flat maps and globes offered the same information, people were astonished by such a new and engrossing view of the world. Nowhere else could people see the entire world in such a unique perspective, and visitors marveled at the fascinating relationships between bodies of water and land. Upon its opening, people immediately noted facts like:
Another intriguing characteristic visitors noticed immediately was actually unintentional. Inside the Mapparium, you will notice a very strange sound quality. The spherical shape and glass construction create an odd acoustical property that allows you to hear your own voice as if you were speaking into your own ears! Also, if two people stand at each end of the 30-foot bridge, they can whisper to each other and be heard as if they were standing side by side.
Since its opening, the Mapparium has been shut down twice: once during the start of World War II when the Federal government declared a state of emergency, and then again in 1998, to begin a four-year renovation. A new, state-of-the-art lighting and sound system was installed, and the glass was cleaned and repaired.
In 1939, 1958, and again in 1966, different committees discussed updating the map. In 1966, the estimated cost was $175,000 to create and install new glass panels. It was decided that the Mapparium held much more value as an art object, and the idea of updating was finally dropped.
Today, the Mapparium is a snapshot of the world in another time. Nowhere else can you view the world in such a unique perspective, and see just how much the world has changed.