History of the Athenaeum
Citing its remarkable architecture, well-preserved gallery of American paintings, and Poole’s original book collection, the United States Department of the Interior designated the St. Johnsbury Athenæum a National Historic Landmark in 1996. The Athenæum is one of the few libraries in the nation with this prestigious status.
Horace Fairbanks presented the St. Johnsbury Athenæum to the people of St. Johnsbury in 1871. Horace Fairbanks was a partner and later president of the E. and T. Fairbanks Company, the scale manufacturing company whose development influenced the history and growth of St. Johnsbury, and Vermont Governor from 1866-1868. New York architect John Davis Hatch III designed the Athenæum in French Second Empire style; the building is characterized by a mansard roof, tall arched windows which brighten the interior, elaborate woodwork, floors with alternating strips of ash and walnut and spiral staircases.
Mr. Fairbanks collected works by many contemporary American painters--primarily of the Hudson River School--and also acquired copies of classical paintings while traveling in Europe. In 1873 he added an Art Gallery to the main building. The purchase of Albert Bierstadt’s The Domes of the Yosemite, a colossal ten by fifteen foot painting, influenced the design of the gallery. This overwhelming panorama dominates the back wall of the gallery. Natural light from the gallery skylight enhances the effect of looking down into the valley from the artist’s vantage point.
The Fairbanks family augmented the gallery collection to create what is now a permanent collection of about one hundred works. The Hudson River School is represented by such well-known artists as Asher B. Durand (the father of American Landscape painting), Jasper Cropsey (known for autumn landscapes), Sanford Gifford (a Luminist painter), James and William Hart (pastoral landscapes with cattle), Samuel Colman and Worthington Whittredge (Western views).
Time magazine noted in 1965 that the St. Johnsbury Athenæum Art Gallery is “the United States’ oldest unaltered art gallery still standing.” The Athenæum intentionally retains the gallery’s original style and atmosphere. Paintings in the heavy gilded frames of that era hang one above another; white marble statues and busts sit atop pedestals; oak bookcases contain gold tooled leather bound books. This gallery is truly an authentic period piece.
The library’s book collection, originally consisting of 8,000 finely bound volumes selected with the advice of the noted bibliographer W.F. Poole, has been expanded to include nearly 45,000 volumes. In addition to physical books, the library has magazines, newspapers, DVD movies, CD audio books, e-books and and audio books online, a complete set of the local newspaper on microfilm, pamphlets and paperbacks.
The Athenæum serves as the town’s public library, but is an independent private corporation governed by a Board of Trustees. The Athenæum receives an appropriation from the town which covers about 20 percent of its annual budget.
The St. Johnsbury Athenæum stands as a permanent reminder of the generosity of the Fairbanks family and an invitation to visit the gracious world of the nineteenth century.