Welcome to Secret Philly, an occasional series in which Billy Penn will visit hidden or exclusive places in Philadelphia and write about them.
It was the beginning of the 19th century, and a group of young professionals in Philadelphia found themselves in a predicament: They weren’t rich.
But they also weren’t poor. And this group of gentlemen wanted to educate themselves and learn more about the world around them. Unlike the top brass in Philadelphia at the time, they couldn’t afford to start their own home libraries and begin collecting books about history or the arts or mythology or whatever struck their fancy. At the time, public libraries didn’t exist.
So in 1814, they started the Gentleman’s Literary Society, a somewhat mobile collection of books that the group of guys purchased by pooling their money. At one point, their collection was housed in an upper room of Independence Hall. By the mid-19th century, the collection had grown larger and the society needed a home base, and so The Athenaeum of Philadelphia, a membership library on S. 6th St. in the shadow of Independence Hall, was formed.
Today, The Athenaeum — pronounced Athen-ay-um and named after the Greek goddess Athena, who represented wisdom — is one of less than 20 remaining membership libraries in the country. As public libraries sprouted up, these members-only paid affairs became largely obsolete. But this one holds a special collection of literature related to arts and architecture, and includes a secret basement room with some of the most important blueprints in the nation. That, along with private donations, is what’s kept it alive.
The Athenaeum’s Executive Director Peter Conn took Billy Penn on a tour of the library, including the exclusive reading rooms where many of the books are held, as well as down and around the winding staircase that has access to all floors of the building. Here’s a look inside:
The Athenaeum, which currently has about 1,200 members that pay at least $75 a year for membership, is open to the public for tours. The first floor features a large room to the right as you walk in containing an exhibit that rotates several times a year — sometimes it’s rare books, other times it’s curated items in a specific theme.
Right now, the exhibit features a look at the early marketing of paint, with a focus on how the process of painting structures has changed over the years. This goes along with a recurring theme here at The Athenaeum: Arts and architecture. In fact, the building itself draws architecture buffs, as it’s a National Historic Landmark and was designed in 1845 by architect John Notman in the “Italianate” style. It was one of the first buildings in the country to be built in such a way.
Other exhibits in the library are more focused on history, like one about Napolean Bonaparte. The Athenaeum has collected his items because his older brother had fled France and come to Philadelphia — now The Athenaeum has some of Napolean’s items, including his death mask.
Elsewhere on the first floor are side rooms, some of which resemble a company’s board rooms. Conn said that when the library was first built, the owners of the literary society couldn’t pay to keep the building running entirely, so they rented out space to groups like the Philadelphia School Board. It was, in some ways, America’s first coworking space.
In one of the rooms, a metal plate is on the door that notes that The National Education Association was founded here in 1857.
Up the winding staircase is where you’ll start to see a lot of books. Among thick tomes that lay out architectural history are newer books, including reference books, fiction and non-fiction. A version of “The Martian” with Matt Damon’s face on it sits in the middle of the room.
After years of refurbishing, the reading room today looks almost exactly like it did in 1847, with the exception of electricity. Here, members can come to have a cup of coffee and sit back with a book as natural light pours in.
Opposite the reading room on the same floor is an event space where The Athenaeum holds curated talks and presentations that are open to the public. Conn said that his goal for the coming years isn’t necessarily to increase membership at The Athenaeum, but rather to ensure that it’s a part of the social and political conversations in Philadelphia.
He plans to not only host talks about books and literature, but also about issues: Urban policy, planning and development, immigration, constitutional matters. The full event calendar includes everything from a talk from Nathaniel Popkin of Hidden City on “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment,” to a lecture about “Literary Philadelphia: A History of Poetry & Prose in the City of Brotherly Love.”
But despite the impressive reading room, the real gem of The Athenaeum is a tiny basement room called the vault that’s closed off to the public. It’s unimpressive — it’s really just a room filled with filing cabinets. But inside each cabinet are prints and designs, some from Philadelphia architect Thomas U. Walter, whose portrait hangs on a hallway wall.
What’s so special about Walter? He designed parts of the nation’s capitol building, including the House and Senate extensions and, most notably, the Capitol Dome built during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency.
Inside the drawers are some of Walter’s first renderings of what he wanted the Dome to look like, including an in-depth breakdown of exactly how he wanted it to be built. They’re not prints. They’re not copies. They’re the original blueprints that laid out one of the most iconic buildings in America.
Nearby are photos of the construction of the dome, in which some people swear you can see Lincoln standing in front of the capitol building. They’ve also got copies of diaries and letters from Walter that describe the assassination of the president.
The filing cabinets have hundreds of centuries-old blueprints and designs, including renderings of stained glass windows and art by notable artists. It also includes old maps, like this one of the City of Philadelphia from 1801 which maps out schools, taverns and the turnpike during what would have been the administration of Thomas Jefferson.
(Of note, if you’re into neighborhood boundaries: The entire part of the city north of the grid in Center City is labeled as Northern Liberties, and South Philly is split between Passyunk and Moyamensing.)
It’s collectibles like these that Conn says are why The Athenaeum has lived on, despite the influx of free and public libraries. Today, the Athenaeum doesn’t have a lot of young members. Conn hopes that new conversations taking place in the library will at least draw Philadelphians to come by.
“Instead of this being a hidden gem,” he said, “I’d rather it be a visible gem that’s part of the contemporary Philadelphia conversation.”