Although the Providence Athenaeum remained closed to the public during the height of the pandemic, staff and board members stayed busy: The reduced foot traffic allowed for a thorough renovation of the Greek Revival building, a beloved Providence landmark. Particular attention was paid to restoring the institution’s heart, the Art Room. Located above the main entrance on the terrace level, the Art Room houses the Athenaeum’s extensive art book collection and other ephemera rooted in the history of the institution. The room was adapted from an old storage space in 1896, and remains one of the most magical spots in an already extraordinary building.
Even before the restoration, walking into the Art Room was akin to entering a jewel box. The room is lit from above by a lay light – a cousin of the traditional skylight made of two layers of glass – which provides diffuse, steady light throughout the day. A pair of mullioned interior windows offers a striking bird’s-eye view of the double-height reading room, with a cushioned window seat inviting visitors to curl up and read. Shelves of brightly colored books line the walls, with portraits of famous Providence poet Sarah Helen Whitman and her one-time beau, Edgar Allan Poe, and a pen-and-ink drawing of a raven by painter Édouard Manet.
Athenaeum board member Tripp Evans spearheaded the Art Room renovation, curating art, installing moulding, and sourcing finishings. Evans also hand-cleaned the lay light, which needed some elbow grease after years of dust and dozens of nor’easters. Local furniture restorers took particular care with a precious inlaid Chinese table, original to the art room; Warren Chair Works built new wooden reading chairs with traditional construction methods. A taxidermy mount of the emblematic raven – technically a crow, but let’s not quibble over details – now perches under a 19th-century hand-blown glass cloche sourced from Benefit Street antique store Old as Adam. The room will host meetings and special events, and serve as a study space for Athenaeum members, but visitors can also catch a glimpse of the renovations through the interior windows from the terrace-level balconies.
Outside of the Art Room, Evans painted nearly every surface in the building, unifying the many nearly matching wall colors. Staff standardized the printed and painted signs to help visitors explore the library. New busts will soon be installed among the cadre of white male authors that line the terrace level: Frederick Douglass, Louisa May Alcott, and Mary Wollstonecraft will join the pantheon. As a final flourish, Evans hand-painted a plaque bearing the mission statement of the Athenaeum, which now hangs in the main entryway.
To Robin Wetherill, Director of Membership and External Relations, the Athenaeum is defined by its “spirit of place”: the aura of a building that has survived the American Civil War and both World Wars, as well as countless recessions and pandemics. As the Athenaeum approaches its 200th anniversary, it remains the center of a devoted community of readers and lovers of the obscure now numbering some 60,000 a year. The crow – or is it a raven? – in the Art Room is still unnamed, and Athenaeum staff are open to suggestions.