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Providence Athenaeum

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1836–1838, William Strickland. 1868, remodeling (interior and main staircase), James C. Bucklin. 1871, exterior drinking fountain, Ware and Van Brunt. 1917, southeast rear wing, Norman M. Isham. 1977–1979, rare book room, Warren Platner. 251 Benefit St. (corner of College St.)
  • Providence Athenaeum (HABS)
  • (Damie Stillman)

William Strickland's only New England commission brought this rugged gray granite temple to Providence for a private subscription library, which was originally also to have included quarters for the local Franklin Society, a scientific group, and the Rhode Island Historical Society. The latter two organizations abandoned the venture, although the Franklin Society's involvement may have accounted for the award of the commission to the major architect in the Greek Revival style, who was himself a member of the Franklin Society in Philadelphia. The slope above Benefit Street provides its mini-Acropolis, reached by an elaborate stair with split approach, then a steep finale between two Doric columns (distyle) in a porch inset between wings (in antis). All this invokes the Goddess of Wisdom for the books behind, her precinct prettily bounded by cast iron fencing with fine Greek Revival detailing based on anthemion and palmette themes. The incongruous outdoor drinking fountain of 1871, by Ware and Van Brunt, is a fine example of Victorian outdoor embellishment.

Inside, James Bucklin's plain but comfortable renovation of 1868, with open stacks ranged beside reading tables, predominates, creating the kind of invitation to browsing and reading which eludes most post-Victorian libraries completely. A fantastic library table modeled on an Egyptian temple and painted with hieroglyphs is tucked under the stairs at the lower level. In front of a small earlier (1917) addition by Norman Isham toward the rear of the south wall, Warren Platner's late 1970s addition for rare books tries to be sympathetic outside, but nevertheless impinges on the original independence of Strickland's box. Its plate glass window proclaims a modern interior, well detailed and pleasant in itself, but at odds with the Pickwickian environment elsewhere.

Writing Credits

William H. Jordy et al.


What's Nearby


William H. Jordy et al., "Providence Athenaeum", [Providence, Rhode Island], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—,

Print Source

Buildings of Rhode Island, William H. Jordy, with Ronald J. Onorato and William McKenzie Woodward. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, 84-84.

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