Our handsome Greek Revival building was dedicated in 1838 to create a home for the newly formed Athenæum.
The original construction cost $18,955.76 and was built on land donated by Moses Ives Brown and his family. It is the only New England building designed by the renowned Philadelphia architect, William Strickland. His major contribution to nineteenth-century architecture was his inauguration of Greek Revival, a movement that dominated American architecture from 1820 to 1850.
Following the form of a Greek temple, the Athenæum’s main entry is a full story above ground level. This creates a visual perspective making the building seem larger than it actually is. Built of granite from Johnston, Rhode Island, the lower level is rusticated stone, as are the building’s sides. In contrast, granite on the upper main level front is dressed to a smooth, refined ashlar finish. Granite front steps rise to a recessed portico of bluestone and stucco, with a double wood door. Beyond is the double-height main library space with double-height windows, surrounded on three sides by the 1869 mezzanine addition. The pleasant light within was created later with the addition of center skylights.
In 1914, due to increasing constraints on collections and a desire to provide our youngest readers with a space of their own, local architect Norman Isham designed an addition at the southeast corner of the building. Stylistically, it mimicked the Strickland original, and seamlessly enlarged the building’s capacity.
In 1978, architect Warren Platner designed a second expansion on the southwest corner of the Strickland building. Our current Sayles Gorham Children’s Library and the Philbrick Rare Book Room moved into this wing where they remain today. Platner’s Benefit Street facade, directly adjacent to Strickland’s original, masterfully interpreted Strickland’s Neoclassical form and materials in a refined Modernist idiom. The addition was published in national au courant magazines, winning the 1980 National American Institute of Architects/American Library Association Award.