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Chapters in the Athenaeum's History – January 2012 Edition of History & Heritage

Imagine getting off the train in St. Johnsbury in the mid-1870s and walking or riding up dirt-covered Eastern Avenue and seeing this magnificent two-story building, complete with a tower in front and balcony facing the avenue.

Hopefully, then and now, it would give one pause as to what and where this building came from.

The donor was Horace Fairbanks, born March 21, 1820, to Erastus and Lois Fairbanks. His uncle Thaddeus was the inventor of the platform scale in 1830. Horace also would follow in the footsteps of the leadership of the E. & T. Fairbanks Scale Company right up until his death, March 17, 1888.He was elected governor of Vermont in 1876 and served for two years. He was married to Mary Taylor in 1849 and to that union were born three daughters, Helen, Agnes and Isabel.

Built in 1852 by Horace Carpenter, their home, Pinehurst, still stands on Western Avenue, now belonging to the Elks. Consisting of a magnificent home, three greenhouses, ponds and a deer park that extended to Summer Street, it was but a stone's throw from his cultural gift of the athenaeum.

Designed by John Davis Hatch of New York, this building was to serve as a library and assembly hall. The "clerk of the works" was Lambert Packard of St. Johnsbury, himself an architect and chief builder at the Fairbanks Scale Works. It would take 3½ years before the library would be opened and dedicated.

The Caledonian reported on July 31, 1868, that more than 70,000 bricks had been used in the basement area and 20 workmen were employed. The wait was over on Nov. 27, 1871, as the athenaeum opened its doors to the town.

Horace Fairbanks' goal was to create an extensive library to cover every area of study. To fulfill that goal, Horace chose William F. Poole, one of America's best known librarians to assemble the collection. Nothing was spared as the best editions were purchased, including leather bindings from London.

The original collection was about 8,000 and continued to grow, creating a need for more book space in the 1890s. This need was satisfied by the building of the gallery around the main reading room accessed by a spiral staircase.

In 1873, the gift of the athenaeum was added to by the addition of a small art gallery behind the original building. John Davis Hatch designed the gallery with natural light gathered through a large central skylight and three smaller skylights.

Dominating the gallery from its opening in 1873 was the "Domes of the Yosemite" by Albert Bierstadt. This canvas, about 10 feet by 15 feet, was doomed to obscurity by some writers as it found its way to this remote town, but in the words of Edward Fairbanks, "the people who live in this obscurity are nevertheless quite capable of appreciating the dignity it lends to this small village."

In 1996, the Athenaeum was designated a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior. It is the oldest art gallery in its original form in the country.

In the words of Judge Luke Potter Poland who spoke at the dedication of the Athenaeum of its founder -- "Who has opened a fountain of learning whose steam will flow on through all time."

Peggy Pearl is director of the St. Johnsbury History and Heritage Center.

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