St. Johnsbury Athenaeum

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(Host) The Saint Johnsbury Athenaeum and Art Gallery – one of Vermont’s architectural gems – has recently re-opened after a year-long renovation. And commentator Peter Gilbert says it’s been worth the wait.

(Gilbert) “Athenaeum” – it’s a word from another era. Athenaeum – it means a temple of Athena, goddess of wisdom, where poets, philosophers, and rhetoricians met. A place like Athens, a center of culture for the people; a library or literary club, a place where the arts and humanities, reading and learning, are part of everyday life and central to a vigorous civic culture.

The St. Johnsbury Athenaeum is one of the legacies of Horace Fairbanks, who made his fortune manufacturing his invention, the platform scale. Some Athenaeums were – and still are – private, open only to members. Not the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum: Mr. Fairbanks gave it to his hometown in 1871; the building unites the dignity of a nineteenth-century men’s club with the openness and warmth of a vital, modern library in democratic America. Everyone is welcome, and, in fact, every one goes – adults of all backgrounds, teenagers, and young kids. The Athenaeum is a visible and outward manifestation of, well, the humanities in Vermont. It’s been called “a monument to the nineteenth-century belief in learning.”

Now refurbished and wired for the information age, the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum is a sturdy testimonial to the on-going capacity of the past, learning, and excellence to inspire and teach. It’s an elegant statement in brick about the power of ideas and art, or “beauty and truth,” as Keats wrote in his poem. “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Kinda fits with an Athenaeum, doesn’t it – remembering a lesson taught by a mute Grecian urn.

The St. Johnsbury Athenaeum is worth going to see – even going a long way to see. Gone is the wall-to-wall carpet; beneath your feet now are hardwood floors of alternating light and dark wood. Magnificent paintings in gilded frames abound, including one of Yosemite Valley by Albert Bierstadt that covers an entire wall. Wooden spiral staircases, book cases, and paneling – they virtually glow.

It’s on the second floor where you’ll find the restoration’s piece de resistance. In the main room, site of public talks and poetry readings, they’ve removed a drop ceiling to reveal a stunning painted ceiling and tall, arched windows. The space takes your breath away. Indeed I thought of Emily Dickinson’s definition of poetry. “If,” she wrote, when she is reading a book, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know this is poetry.” That’s the way I felt in that lofty room – as if the top of my head were taken off. That’s it – the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum is poetry, in brick and wood. Check it out – and check out the books while you’re at it.

This is Peter Gilbert in Montpelier.

Peter Gilbert is the executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council. He spoke to us from our studio in Montpelier.

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