Monday, August 18, 2014

Vermont: Planning a Visit to the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum

The St.Johnsbury Athenaeum is located on Main Street in St.Johnsbury, Vt. This magnificent Second Empire building was designed by John Davis Hatch for Horace Fairbanks in 1871 as a public library. Mr. Fairbanks gifted it to the people of St. Johnsbury. Horace was the nephew of Thaddeus Fairbanks who invented the platform scale and was a partner in the company his uncle had founded. Described by Time Magazine as "The oldest unaltered art gallery still standing in the United States," the Gallery at the Atheneum was added in 1873. 

It originally housed a goodly number of copies of old masters that had been acquired by the Fairbanks on their various trips to Europe. The determining factor in the design of the gallery, however, was the acquisition of a monumental painting by Albert Bierstadt entitled ‘The Domes of the Yosemite”.

This painting originally graced the Rotunda of the Lockwood Mansion in Norwalk, Conn. When the owner Lagrand Lockwood died, his widow needed to sell part of his estate to meet expenses and she sold the Bierstadt to the Fairbanks. It has remained here since that time and members of the Lockwood family still come to check up on “their” painting.

There was be a docent in the gallery to answer any questions as well as guide books that you may use to identify the paintings, they are also for sale if you want to learn more about the Athenaeum. If you have the time, there is an eight-minute headphone tour if you choose to take it. It is worth listening to but do talk to the docents, they have lots of stories to tell and are more than willing to share them with you. They are also very child friendly. One story that I particularly liked has to do with Mr. Fairbanks portrait which hangs in the Fiction Room, look closely at his feet I won’t tell you any more, you will just have to go to see for yourself.

Beyond the old master copies and the Bierstadt there is a very nice collection of American Hudson River paintings as well as other pictures that would have been painted contemporary with Mr. Fairbanks' life. I particularly like the painting by John George Brown “Hiding in the Old Oak” it shows three young girls hiding within the trunk of the tree. Until recently, it was thought that there were two girls but when the painting was cleaned the third one became visible deeper within the tree.

Keep in mind that this is still a public library and the book collection here is quite amazing. Originally consisting of 8,000 volumes, it now has over 45,000. Like most public libraries they also have Internet access on the second floor.

This building is worth visiting just to look at all the magnificent woodwork. When we visited the entrance was $5 for adults (children under 17 are free) to visit the gallery and none of the pictures anywhere in the Athenaeum may be photographed.

There is metered parking on the street.

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