Given the remote location, it's not surprising the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum draws fewer than 10,000 visitors a year. But the 135-year-old library and art gallery contains enough world-class masterworks and lovably tacky curios to warrant much greater attendance. The building, an understated example of the Second Empire Baroque style, is itself worth a trek to a city better known for "Eye on the Sky" weather forecasts than hosting one of Vermont's best-kept cultural secrets.
A recently published catalogue of its art collection may help the Athenaeum emerge from relative obscurity. In addition to reproductions and capsule descriptions of the roughly 120 paintings and sculptures on view, the soft-cover handbook includes a scholarly essay on the Athenaeum's history by art historian Mark Mitchell. There's also a guide for teachers who may want to lead a tour of the Northeast Kingdom's treasure trove.
Albert Bierstadt's 10-by-15-foot painting "The Domes of the Yosemite" is literally the collection's centerpiece -- it dominates the wall that faces viewers entering the gallery. This iconic landscape was purchased at an auction in 1867 by Athenaeum founder Horace Fairbanks, who went on to buy nearly all the other items now exhibited in the gallery from dealers and artists he met at New York City's Century Club, a gathering place for America's 19th-century industrial barons.
Fairbanks (1820-1888) was the inheritor of a multinational company resulting from his uncle Thaddeus' invention of the platform scale in 1830 -- brother Erastus, Horace's father, managed the business and established the family's patronage in St. Johnsbury. The Fairbanks family had first prospered as hemp cultivators and would become "one of the richest families in America," according to Athenaeum library director Lisa von Kann. Just down the street, the natural history museum and planetarium also bears the Fairbanks name, and Erastus and his two brothers founded the St. Johnsbury Academy, today the town's high school.
Horace Fairbanks frequented the company's offices in European capitals as well as in Manhattan. And it was in those cultural centers that the self-taught connoisseur acquired a taste for the landscapes, genre paintings and Renaissance and Baroque masterpieces. His preferences colored the Athenaeum's collection.
Besides the Bierstadt, notable pieces include Sanford Gifford's "View from South Mountain in the Catskills" (1873), a fine example of the Hudson River School's luminist compositions and a painting that "may actually be worth more than 'The Domes,'" observes von Kann. George Cochran Lambdin's "Girl Reading" (1872), featured as the frontispiece in the new catalogue, has an appealingly contemplative quality heightened by the artist's sure handling of the sunlight washing over his sitter.
One Vermont artist represented in the collection is Thomas Waterman Wood. His 1874 genre painting, "The Argument," presents a cliched scene of three Yankee old-timers lounging and debating around a woodstove. The setting is local: Williamstown's Ainsworth General Store.
Like all the other paintings, the Wood is displayed in "the old-fashioned way," von Kann says. It's hung close to other works, many of which are stacked and packed in tight formations that contemporary curators would regard as cluttered and distracting. "The display method has never been altered, and it never will be," von Kann declares.
Despite the grand, soaring ceilings punctuated by four skylights, the art gallery is actually an annex constructed two years after the main Athenaeum building, which opened in 1871. Horace Fairbanks' original structure, designed by New York architect John Davis Hatch III, served as an extraordinarily well-endowed town library that included 9000 leather-bound volumes selected with the assistance of George Poole, creator of the first index of periodical literature.
The Athenaeum still functions as St. Johnsbury's main lending library. The surviving original volumes have been stored in the basement, and a typical selection of novels and nonfiction is now shelved on the main floor and on balconies accessible by wooden spiral staircases. The library has also become a 21st-century electronic resource center, complete with a bank of computers tucked away in the rear of the Athenaeum's upstairs lecture hall.
A children's reading room added in 1924 features a fine set of murals commissioned by Franklin Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration and painted by Margery Eva Lang Hamilton, a graduate of the St. Johnsbury Academy.
The entire complex stands as a testament to Horace Fairbanks' civic-mindedness and high ambitions for his hometown.
"Fairbanks believed that there was no reason why St. Johnsbury should not become a crossroads of the world both literarily and intellectually," Mitchell writes in the catalogue. At the same time, the Fairbanks family "recognized the cultural limitations of living in a rural area and sought to offset them by bringing a premier collection of literature (through the library) and art (through the gallery) to their community."
Fairbanks sought out copies of Old Masters -- an undertaking that would be regarded as entirely tacky today -- because he realized, Mitchell writes, that "most residents of the St. Johnsbury area would never see a foreign country firsthand," and he believed it was preferable to see a copy of a great work of art than to never see the original.
But the Athenaeum was not created solely to celebrate the value of art, or as a temple devoted to the aesthetics of the written word. The Fairbanks men were cultivated and held lofty ideals, but they were also capitalists who understood the economic advantages to be gained by improving the town's cultural literacy. "By making distinguished examples of fine art available for study, the museum founders believed that they would enhance the nation's products and better compete for international markets," the catalogue points out.
There is no denying the Fairbanks clan's far-sightedness, however, in funding public education and edification as an end in itself. The Athenaeum was opened a full 25 years before Andrew Carnegie began seeding public libraries around the country, and Horace Fairbanks' art gallery was established around the same time as the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It's an especially impressive pioneering venture in a community of 4000 inhabitants.
The family continued to fund the Athenaeum for many years, but its fortunes declined along with St. Johnsbury's in the era of mid-20th-century American deindustrialization. The Athenaeum's caretakers decided at one point to lower the ceilings and truncate correspondingly tall windows in an effort to reduce heating bills. The building was never in danger of falling into dilapidation, but maintenance had become a concern by the time a fundraising drive was launched in the 1990s for an overdue restoration. Federal aid and a generous grant from the Freeman Foundation enabled the building to be returned to its original splendor in 1996.
Keeping Athenaeum operations proceeding smoothly is a "tricky proposition," von Kann says. "It's not a rich town," she notes, and so librarians and curators find themselves cast into the role of fundraisers. St. Johnsbury's taxpayers supply only about one-quarter of the Athenaeum's $450,000 annual budget, and state and federal contributions are dwindling, von Kann notes. "Librarians don't expect to spend a lot of their time raising funds, but increasingly, that's what we have to do."
The gallery and library show no signs of being shortchanged, however. The carved walnut and ash woodwork looks wonderfully well tempered, as befits a building that was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1996. "There's a patina of age on everything here now," says von Kann. "The place looks as good as it ever has."