I’ll have one of those 24’ ceilings, please! That must be what the founders of the Philadelphia Athenaeum must have told architect John Notman in 1845 when he designed this grand Italianate Revival style building. And let’s put a grand marble front on it. Oh, the budget won’t stretch that far? OK, let’s use brownstone and become one of the first buildings in the city to star this material. Note: The building is located on Washington Square in center city Philadelphia, across from the Curtis Building--home of one of my favorite places, a lobby with a giant Tiffany glass mosaic, "Dream Garden" designed by Maxfield Parish.
I attended a talk a friend was giving in this fantastic building recently, and had a leisurely look at it. It is where the Philadelphia Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians holds many meetings, but since I brought the speaker, we had a narrated tour by Bruce Laverty, the Curator of Architecture.
One of the unique pieces in the building has always been the 1873 water filter and stand. I learned that a chunk of ice was put at the top and the limestone filtered the icy water and produced a cool drink which could be poured into one of the 2 common glasses below. A bonus was that any water not caught by members’ glasses flowed into a lined drawer below which helped keep the lunches stored in the adjacent drawer cool. Another interesting fact was that 2 hexagonal tables in the reading room were older than the building itself and still very much in use. And if you look carefully, you can see the faux graining on the columns copied from a small section rescued from and earlier white paint job.
Also on the second floor (with those 24” ceilings) was a small study with a public laptop, a chess table (one of many which originally were in the room), and glass-fronted bookcases which held a treasury of precious books. They included Godey’s Lady’s Book, published in Philadelphia from the 1830’s to 1870’s--a particular favorite of mine since I have a two framed pages of the latest fashions from 1864 and 1868. The first floor houses offices and a gallery with changing exhibits. Currently you can learn all about early house paints, all custom mixed in early days (no picking a standard color and walking out with a can of it!)
The Athenaeum of Philadelphia is one of 16 surviving membership libraries. Some, like the Charleston (SC; 1748), New York Society (1754), and Newport (RI; 1741) libraries date from the 18th century. The Athenaeum of Philadelphia was established in 1814 as a subscription library, at a time when the free public library system did not exist and collections of books, available for reading or research, were still mostly limited to institutions and schools or colleges. Current shareholders may make use of historical and contemporary books (a favorite category seems to be mysteries--my kind of people!) as well as attend programs. The building is open to the public, but reservations are needed if you want to do research there. It's no problem to get in and this is where I did research for my Master's Thesis at the U of DE.
If you are in Philadelphia, use the opportunity to visit these historic buildings! And if you are looking for help with older and historic buildings in Delaware and nearby Southern Chester County, contact Carolyn Roland.