A newly renovated and expanded Boston Athenaeum is eager to welcome back old members and invite new ones into the fold after reopening on Tuesday, Nov. 15, following 14 months of construction.
“We’re eager to welcome new members and returning members,” said Leah Rosovsky, the Athenaeum’s Stanford Calderwood Director. “We’re eager to welcome people who want to be part of this terrific community. We have great spaces, collections, and experiences, and we’re eager to share them.”
The Athenaeum is a membership-based nonprofit that combines a library, a museum, and a cultural center in one location. It’s one of the country’s oldest and most esteemed independent libraries, with a circulating collection of more than half a million books, ranging from works published in the 1800s to the latest bestsellers. Special collections include active research holdings of 100,000 rare books, maps, and manuscripts, as well as 100,000 works of art, including paintings, sculpture, prints, and photographs. The Athenaeum’s membership currently stands at around 3,000, said Rosovsky. and members enjoy year-round cultural programs (e.g. book talks, exhibitions, concerts, speakers, and social gatherings, among other offerings).
The renovation project, helmed by Ann Beha Architects, has not only enhanced the Athenaeum’s longtime home at 10½ Beacon St., but it has also increased its footprint by approximately 13,000 square feet via expanding into the adjacent building at 14 Beacon St.
“One thing that’s wonderful about adding additional space is that it allows us to show much more of our collections,” said Rosovsky. “We’re looking at the collections in new ways and telling new stories. It also gives us a chance to show much more of what we have.”
A grant the Atheneum received last year from the Terra Foundation for American Art has supported the reinstallation of works by artists of color and women artists in the first-floor Henry Long room, which are now the basis for the ongoing “Re-Reading Special Collections” exhibit. Works by Allan Rohan Crite, a Black Boston artist who died in 2007, and Polly Thayer Starr, a female Boston painter and pastel artist who died the previous year, are now on exhibit in the Long Room for the first time, said Rosovsky, although they had previously been on display in other parts of the building.
Also on display in the Long Room is “Boatsman Delivering Goods on the South Fork Shenandoah River, Virginia,” a recently acquired 1850s oil on canvas by acclaimed 19th-century artist Robert S. Duncanson, who was born in upstate New York in 1821 to free Black parents and became a leading American landscape painter in the years surrounding the American Civil War.
Hanging directly above this work is another 1862 oil on canvas painted by Duncanson, “Lancaster, New Hampshire,” which is currently on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts.
The new Leventhal Room, meanwhile, extends the Athenaeum’s first floor and offers sweeping views of the Granary Burying Ground, as well as comfortable places to read and talk.
“They’re just beautiful, comfortable new spaces designed to welcome people,” said Rosovsky.
There are additional “living rooms” on the fourth floor open only to members, which also overlook the Granary Burying Ground, while offering stellar views of the Boston skyline.
(Non-members with day passes are only allowed on the first of the Athenaeum’s five galleried floors, although non-members can take tours that span the entire building. Non-members can also view anything in the Athenaeum’s Special Collections via special request by emailing Bostonathenaeum.org.)
The second-floor Study Center has been designed with a specific eye on bringing high school and college students into the Athenaeum to view the Special Collections, said Rosovsky.
“We try to reach out to the city in particular with educational experiences,” she said, adding that the Athenaeum also runs a teaching training program and has also just published a Study Guide “for particular parts of the collection.”
The lobby at 10 ½ Beacon St. has been redesigned to open up the entry area. The Athenaeum’s iconic red doors, which were previously impervious to light, save for a few small portholes on top, have each been outfitted with a large pane of glass, allowing passersby to see inside.
The lockers and coat-check area previously located beside the doors have been relocated to a dedicated room at the back of the first-floor. The size of welcoming desk located just inside the entry area has also been greatly reduced to allow for a more open feel to the space.
Other enhancements to the Athenaeum include a new Children’s Library, targeted at readers under 6, which boats a mural by local artist, Ekua Holmes, along with a newly located Norma Jean Calderwood Gallery.
Sometime next year, a 40-seat café for members and guests is set to open at the street level; it will be operated by The Catered Affair, the Athenaeum’s exclusive event caterer.
With its improved and expanded spaces, there’s no better time to become a member of the Athenaeum, where the only caveat for joining is that newcomers have an advanced sense of curiosity.
“When we think what makes someone a member of the Athenaeum, it’s someone who’s curious about things,” said Rosovsky. “That element of curiosity runs through all the things we do and is really the commonality among all our members.”
The Athenaeum will celebrate its reopening with a series of events, including a special reception for members in January, and an open house for the entire community in April. For a full calendar of events, to register for a tour or purchase a day pass, or to become an Athenaeum member, visit bostonathenaeum.org.