Boston Athenaeum

Boston Athenaeum

Edward Clarke Cabot, 1847–1849

Henry Forbes Bigelow, enlargement, 1913–1914

Schwartz/Silver, interior renovation and expansion, 2004

National Historic Landmark

Preservation Achievement Award, 2005

The Boston Athenaeum is a proprietary library founded in 1807 on the site of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s boyhood home. Before moving to its present location overlooking the Old Granary Burial Ground, it changed locations several times. Edward Clarke Cabot, who won a competition for its design in 1846, based his scheme on Palladio’s Palazzo da Porta Festa in Vicenza, a work that was illustrated in a book held by the Athenaeum at that time, Le Fabbriche e i Disegni di Andrea Palladio by Ottavoi Bertotti Scamozzi. For years prior to this venture, Cabot had raised sheep in Vermont and Illinois. After his success in architecture, he served as the first president of the Boston Society of Architects, from 1867 until 1869.

The dignified façade of gray sandstone with rich patina is visually organized into two stories. Corinthian pilasters define the window bays, with double pilasters around the window of the central projecting bay in which the entrance is situated. Pedimented windows are set within the slightly recessed arches. The first floor is treated as a more massive basement story, with rusticated arches framing its windows.

Serene high-ceilinged interiors and labyrinthine stacks have provided the perfect setting for several generations of scholars and esthetes. Henry Forbes Bigelow added the impressive fifth-floor reading room. Especially appealing is its large central space under a coffered, vaulted ceiling, with many small sun-filled alcoves amid stacks of books and odd little stairways to the upper stacks. As David McCord wrote, it “combines the best elements of the Bodleian [Library at Oxford], Monticello, the frigate Constitution, a greenhouse and an old New England sitting room.”

In earlier decades literary spinsters and old gentlemen went to the Athenaeum for an afternoon tea of bouillon with cheese sandwiches or sweet crackers, a tradition that remained unchanged for a century, as did the original charge of 3 cents.

The library houses many important historical collections, including George Washington’s personal library. An early Athenaeum librarian, Charles Ammi Cutter, pioneered book classification systems for libraries. Some of the books are still organized in the Cutter system.