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Norman B. Leventhal's map
Norman B. Leventhal's map collection includes this one of the world by Heinrich Bünting from 1581. (Courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the BPL)

Maps lead to a public jewel

Donor's $10m gift lets library display priceless collection

Retired Boston developer and map aficionado Norman B. Leventhal is contributing $10 million for a permanent endowment of the Boston Public Library's map center, the library's largest gift ever.

In an announcement to be made at the library today, Leventhal, who built a significant piece of Boston's skyline and who last week turned 90, is also making a long-term loan to the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center of 178 of his most valuable historic maps of Boston, New England, and the world.

Leventhal and library executives created the center, now in several rooms open to the public only by appointment, about three years ago.

The 178 maps he is donating - about half of Leventhal's collection since he purchased his first map of Boston in London in the early 1970s - will join 200,000 maps already at the library. All of them, both originals and reproductions, will be used increasingly in an educational outreach program for students in Massachusetts and the rest of the nation, funded by the Leventhal gift, library officials said yesterday.

"Maps certainly fascinate me. They're a great educational tool," Leventhal said. "You can learn about geography, history, a lot of things. They're pieces of art."

Among the 400-piece Leventhal collection: John Seller's "A Mapp of New England," from London in 1675, was the first large detailed map of the region. A map published in Paris, "Plan de la Ville et du Port de Boston," is from 1764 and shows early Boston, the little Shawmut Peninsula, almost cut off from the mainland. "Map of the city of Boston and vicinity" is a 1908 lithograph, in pale pink, yellow, and green.

The larger map and atlas collection at the BPL's Leventhal Map Center includes historically significant depictions of the United States, Europe, and the world. The entire collection will be further restored and preserved through a nonprofit corporation funded by Leventhal's gift.

Leventhal's maps are a priceless collection of depictions of the world dating back to 1486, documenting the discovery of the New World and following the development of Boston and New England into the 20th century.

The maps are being digitized and put on line - about 800 are already available - and that effort will now be accelerated, Boston Public Library executives said. In a couple of years or so, a permanent space will be created for the map center in the library's original McKim building at the main branch on Boylston Street.

"It's a very generous gift," Mayor Thomas M. Menino said yesterday. "Whatever he does is for the betterment of Boston. He's really a great Bostonian."

The largest previous single gift to the library was in 2000, from retired Boston schoolteacher Thomas R. Drey Jr., who left $6.8 million to the 159-year-old institution.

The library has an endowment of more than $50 million of restricted and unrestricted funds. Leventhal's $10 million is part of a separate nonprofit organization that he created to benefit the map center at the library.

"The reason we have 800 maps online is thanks to the good works of the Leventhal Map Center," said Jeffrey B. Rudman, chairman of the library's board of trustees and a senior partner at the Boston law firm Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP.

Although most of the library's collection of 200,000 maps has been in storage for the last four decades or so, Leventhal's collection is mostly on display, in the Boston Harbor Hotel, at the Langham Hotel, and in the offices of Beacon Capital Partners LLC, a real estate company run by Leventhal's son Alan.

Bernard A. Margolis, president of the Boston Public Library, recalled admiring maps on the wall at the Boston Harbor Hotel nine years ago. "I was mesmerized," he said yesterday.

Leventhal was looking for a home for the maps, but the library wasn't prepared financially to provide one, Margolis said. They stayed in touch, Leventhal made contributions to the library, and, "Both of us got more excited about making this something that helps people find their way in the world," Margolis said.

The library has sponsored successful exhibits relating to maps, including one in 1999 that coincided with release of the book Leventhal published, "Mapping Boston," and in 2004, "Faces and Places," which connected residents of Boston to the places their ancestors had lived.

"This is really a major gift to guarantee that this enterprise lives on for a long, long time," Margolis said.

The next big exhibition planned is "Boston and Beyond: A Bird's Eye Perspective on New England Towns," which will run from January through July of next year. The show, at the main library and in traveling exhibits to branches and schools, will feature about 50 late-19th-century New England city and town views drawn and published by Boston-area artists.

A related educational program will include guided tours for middle and high school students, according to Roni Pick, who as director of the library's Leventhal Map Center oversees a full-time staff of six. She said the organization is applying for a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to fund a traveling exhibit of the world maps.

In the late 1940s, Leventhal, along with his brother, started the Beacon Cos., which developed prominent Boston properties including Rowes Wharf, the Center Plaza office complex, and Post Office Square Park, and also redeveloped South Station.

At a birthday celebration last week for Leventhal at the Boston Harbor Hotel, Menino announced that, in honor of Leventhal's contributions to the city, the Walk-to-the-Sea, a path from downtown across the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway to the waterfront near Long Wharf, was being renamed the Norman B. Leventhal Walk-to-the-Sea.

Thomas C. Palmer Jr. can be reached at tpalmer@globe.com.

Norman B. Leventhal
Norman B. Leventhal (Courtesy of Boston Public Library)
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