Sunday, October 30, 2011

Boston Athenæum

The Boston Athenæum, one of the oldest and most distinguished independent libraries in the United States, was founded in 1807 by members of the Anthology Society, a group of fourteen gentlemen from Boston, Massachusetts, who had joined together in 1805 to edit The Monthly Anthology and Boston Review. Their purpose was to form "an establishment similar to that of the Athenæum and Lyceum of Liverpool, England, combining the advantages of a public library and containing the great works of learning and science in all languages."

The subscription library and art gallery (1827) were soon flourishing and grew rapidly, both by the purchase of books and art and by frequent gifts. For nearly half a century the Athenæum was the unchallenged center of intellectual life in Boston and by 1851 had become one of the five largest libraries in the United States. Today its collections comprise over half a million volumes, with particular strengths in Boston history, New England state and local history, biography, English and American literature, and the fine and decorative arts (including original works by George Washington, as well as the bibles that King James sent to the colonists to try and turn them to religion instead of revolution). The Athenæum supports a dynamic art gallery, and sponsors a lively variety of events such as lectures and concerts. It also serves as a stimulating center for discussions among scholars, bibliophiles, and a variety of community interest groups.

The first three floors of the present Beacon Street building, designed by Edward Clarke Cabot, were constructed between 1847 and 1849. The first floor was originally a sculpture gallery, the second housed the library's growing collection of books, and the third, with skylights, served as a painting gallery. The building was completely renovated in 1913-1914, at which time the fourth and fifth floors were added and the entire structure fireproofed. Architect Henry Forbes Bigelow designed these improvements.

The Athenæum's five galleried floors overlook the peaceful Granary Burying Ground in the rear, and as Gamaliel Bradford wrote, "it is safe to say that no library anywhere has more an atmosphere of its own, that none is more conducive to intellectual aspiration and spiritual peace" (The Quick and the Dead, 1931).

Boston Athenæum
National Historic Register #66000132

Boston Athenæum offers public tours on Tuesdays at 3:00pm.The docent-led tours are the only way to see the upper floors without being the guest of a member.
617-227-0270, ext. 279


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