This historic special-collections library and museum on Washington Square welcomes residents and tourists alike.
In 1814, a group of local learned men – with broad interests in science, literature, politics and more – announced the opening of two reading rooms run by the Athenaeum of Philadelphia.
Named in honor of Athena, the goddess of wisdom, the member-supported Athenaeum was founded to collect materials “connected with the history and antiquities of America, and the useful arts, and generally to disseminate useful knowledge” for public benefit.
A newspaper notice dated March 7, 1814, the day the museum opened, said future library plans included: U.S. and foreign newspapers and periodicals, pamphlets, scientific journals, maps, charts, “the laws and journals of Congress” and more.
In 1845, when Athenaeum managers decided to construct a new building on 6th Street, they chose a young architect named John Notman over superstars like William Strickland, John Haviland and Thomas Ustick Walter.
A magical selection, Notman’s building, said to be the first Italian Renaissance Revival Style building in the U.S., is a magnificent structure with 24-foot ceilings you must see to appreciate. Part of the National Register of Historic Places, it’s considered one of the most significant American buildings of the 19th century.
Fortunately, you can self-tour the building, including the marvelous reading room, and attend many exhibitions and community lectures free. Just RSVP. (For a current list of the Athenaeum’s free and paid events, go to the website listed under Fast Facts below.)
Visiting the building? Just sign in with the receptionist and get a Visitor’s Tag.
Hidden in plain sight: Despite the Athenaeum’s great location on Washington Square next to the Dilworth House, many locals don’t know it is there … or that they’re welcome inside.
To change that perception, Sandra Tatman, executive director since 2007, moved her office to the front of the building’s ground floor, opened the shutters so people going by could see activity inside, and in effect, put out the welcome mat for residents and tourists alike.
She also opened the Athenaeum on the first three Saturdays of the month, and offers the building’s spaces to other non-profits for annual meetings and faculty retreats.
Joseph Bonaparte’s desk, made by cabinetmaker Michael Bouvier; a copy in marble of Pauline Bonaparte Borghese; or Frank Hamilton Taylor’s watercolor, “A Southwestern View of Washington Square,”1925 (without the current brick wall).
- To cut expenses, architect John Notman used brownstone instead of marble. His choice influenced many other clubs and residences in the city, including the Union League.
- The Athenaeum’s guest book is uniquely titled, “The Book of Strangers.” Among its signers: Edgar Allan Poe; and Joseph Bonaparte, who registered as the Comte de Survilliers.
- Society Hill Hot and Healthy, the free afternoon medical speaker series started by Dr. Lisa Unger, is one of the Athenaeum’s most popular attractions, Sandra says. One recent program on heart attacks brought in about 80 people from all over the city.
Changing times: In 1851, the Athenaeum of Philadelphia subscribed to 62 American newspapers and five foreign ones. Today it carries none. But, the Athenaeum keeps reinventing itself.
It still houses an international collection of thousands of significant rare books, as well architecture and design documents, with over 1 million library items in all.
And after 200 years, it still provides essential information for public benefit – just much of it today in digital form!
Name: The Athenaeum of Philadelphia – in honor of Athena, the goddess of wisdom
Address: 219 S. 6th St., Phila., PA 19106
Distinctions: The building is one of the first brownstone buildings in Philadelphia, and the first American building in the Italianate Renaissance Revival palazzo style.
Unique Collections and Services: American Architects & Buildings Project (134,520 images); Greater Philadelphia Geohistory Network; and Regional Digital Imaging Center (115,000 scans).
Self-Tours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., M-F; 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., first 3 Saturdays of the month; Groups: by appointment.
Admission: Free for self-tours, community lectures, exhibits, and the Socrates Cafe, a discussion group about life’s great questions using the Socratic Method, (2nd Tuesday of the month). RSVP.
Facebook Page: www.facebook.com/philaathenaeum
This article was published in the July/August 2014 issue of the Society Hill Reporter. It has been reprinted with permission.