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Going Public

One man’s large-scale vision still benefits the people of St. Johnsbury


Published December 29, 1999 at 7:20 p.m.

The poet Robert Graves once observed that, if there is no money in poetry, then there is also no poetry in money. It’s a witty and interesting thing to say, but it is only about 80 percent true: Graves didn’t happen to know the Fairbanks family of St. Johnsbury, which gave this town of 6500 its chief industry — the platform scale. And, in an outpouring of generosity, the family also gave the town a museum, an academy and an athenaeum with an art gallery, and proved in passing that it takes character to spend money wisely on things that really matter. We can concede that character isn’t poetry, but there are times when it comes close.

The St. Johnsbury Athenaeum and Art Gallery is one of those tall, narrow, rather imposing public buildings with an amusing Second Empire hat; the rounded tops of its windows look back at the viewer with an expression of perpetual surprise. This building was a gift to the people of St. Johnsbury from Horace Fairbanks, heir to the Fairbanks fortune and governor of Vermont, and it really does look like a present, offered with energy, affection, attitude and attention to detail.

The year was 1871, and you get the feeling that Fairbanks loved every moment of giving it — the original library came with minor explosions in the form of exterior balconies, railings, pointed finials and outbursts of merriment at every opportunity. Some of these details have eroded away, and it’s hard not to yearn to have at least some of this original exuberance back. Inside there is an abundance of sunlight, woodwork, turned balusters and hobbit-sized spiral staircases. At the dedication, Fairbanks talked about his “profound pleasure and sincere satisfaction” in offering the building: “My highest ambition will be satisfied,” he said, “if now and in the coming years the people make the rooms of the Athenaeum a favorite place of resort for patient research, reading and study.”

Two years later Fairbanks added to the original building — the good people of St. Johnsbury needed an art gallery and plenty of pictures to go with their library. After all, the concept of an athenaeum — named for the Greek goddess of wisdom, Athena — meant more than just books. An athenaeum existed to broadcast the virtues of a culture, to preserve its works and to provide a place for assembly around its central ideas. This is an idea so utterly without irony that the 20th-century temperament might be momentarily confused by it, but it’s a good kind of confusion — the initial strangeness of the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum wears off quickly, only to be replaced by another kind of strangeness that is rare and satisfying.

Fairbanks had an exceptional eye for juxtaposition, and had no difficulty at all hanging the work of a Montpelier genre artist near a copy of a Van Dyck; elsewhere, a little girl in a pink dress scolds a spaniel, while in the next picture the Virgin ascends, borne up by angels. It’s all quite deliberate — we are told, almost emphatically, that this is the oldest unaltered gallery space in the country. The gallery illustrates the eclectic and instructional tendencies, not just of an age, but of an individual — Fairbanks knew what he liked, and he knew what he wanted and, by gum, he followed through.

Some of this lack of meddling is driven by simple logistics — it would be essentially impossible to move the gallery’s huge centerpiece painting, Albert Bierstadt’s “Domes of the Yosemite,” which is 10 feet high and 15 feet wide, but it’s also hard to imagine why anyone would want to. It anchors the space with its gold distances and its pristine depiction of the American landscape, and the fact that it is flanked by naked marble ladies and paintings of children and sheep is just one of the things the mind has fun adjusting to. There is a buzz here, deep and individual, that can’t be found in a conventional museum.

The gallery comes with a little balcony built for viewing the big Bierstadt, and if you climb the spiral stairs you can perch on a creaky chair and look down at Yosemite from above, as if in a state of temporary divinity. From here, it’s also hard not to notice that the gallery’s unaltered quality actually reads as a stillness, a studied quietude, that goes beyond the appeal of a mere period piece. It’s full of intention — what else can you say about a place that offers Dolci’s “Madonna and Child” in the same breath as William Beard’s “Why, Puppy Looks Like Grandpa”? The catalogue explains that this second work was “painted to order,” so its presence here la a long way from accidental.

Who was this Horace Fairbanks, and what was he thinking?

Fairbanks held a party in the gallery every New Year’s Eve and invited everybody in town; he brought in an orchestra and potted palms and flowers from his conservatory. At other times he brought in celebrities — President Harrison in 1891 and President Taft in 1912 — and at one point had the English explorer Henry Stanley come around, and Commander Robert E. Peary “with his Arctic dogs.” The portrait of Fairbanks, which was presented to him by the people of St. Johnsbury and hangs in the library, shows us a thin man with a nice face who is losing his hair; he sits at a desk and looks back at the viewer approvingly, though it is hard not to notice that something has gone wrong with his feet. He seems to have two left ones. Behind him is a spacious room full of beloved objects, but he looks like the kind of man who would invite dogs over to acknowledge their accomplishments. This may be one of the most affectionate and unpretentious portraits in New England.

Out in the library, where there is a notable absence of whispering, a helpful member of the Athenaeum staff tells me that people come from all over to see the treasures here. They wonder what a “drop-off, nowhere place like this” is doing with such a fine building and art collection, and, when I return to the gallery, like a metal filing to a magnet, I take a moment and leaf through the guest register. She’s right — I see entries from Connecticut, Illinois, Colorado and Delaware. I also see that many of the entries are written by children, who tend to write “wow” in the comment column.

Art in big gilt frames doesn’t normally elicit that response, especially from children, and the comment is a testament to the simple aesthetic pleasure of hanging around this ornate but curiously friendly room in the Northeast Kingdom. It is genial in the same way the portrait is, and for many of the same reasons. Most rich people buy things and put them in their houses. This is part of the pleasure of having money, and it is a pleasure of an ordinary, understandable kind. But the Athenaeum offers a look at a less ordinary joy, in which a rich man thought it would be better to buy things for everybody, and who measured the value in his own life by how much he managed to give away. It did nice things to his face. Out in the library, with its shafts of sun and bright woodwork, I hear a chair scraping, animated talk and a brief cascade of laughter, and it’s clear that the money he relinquished is still doing nice things to others.