If your kids are like mine, 19th-century American art ranks well below Harry Potter in their hierarchy of interests. But a recent visit to the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum proved a surprisingly enjoyable day trip for my daughters, ages 11 and 17. With 11-year-old friend Lucia in tow, we headed to the Northeast Kingdom to visit the combination town library and gallery one morning in August.
Whether or not you're a library cardholder, the Athenaeum — with its friendly and well-informed volunteers and staff — is worth the wander. Exquisitely designed with spiral staircases (sadly, they're no longer in public use), enormous windows, and floors striped in alternating ash and walnut, the Athenaeum is easily one of the most stunning buildings in Vermont.
We were all entranced by the nearly 10-by-15-foot "Domes of Yosemite" oil painting, dramatically displayed across an entire wall and enchantingly lit by an arched skylight. Horace Fairbanks — of the philanthropic Fairbanks family — purchased the ornately framed painting by Albert Bierstadt in 1872 as a showstopping centerpiece for the Athenaeum's main gallery.
While my older daughter, Molly, and I checked out the rest of the library's extensive art collection, Gabriela and her friend settled down to play a card game in the sizable teen room on the first floor. The current exhibit in the upstairs gallery, on display through September, showcases the work of Syrian-born artist Mohamad Hafez, including a stunningly large and detailed map of the Jordanian Zaatari refugee camp spread across the floor.
The children's room, on the bottom floor of the library, is a comfortable spot for the younger set. A carpeted play area is stocked with toys, and enormous murals on the upper walls depict whimsical storybook illustrations from Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates and Heidi.
As we were leaving, an Athenaeum volunteer thanked us for visiting and said she'd appreciate seeing more children come through the doors.
Afterward, we strolled down Eastern Avenue to the coffee and print shop Café at Gatto Nero Press, which extended the morning's artistic theme. While I drank a well-made espresso and perused their impressive book collection, the girls rejuvenated with strawberry-and-banana smoothies. The atmosphere was relaxed; no one blinked an eye when they spread out on a large red couch and played a game of chess from the shop's stash of games.
While my kids probably won't pass any art history exams after our visit, they were charmed by the coziness of this beautiful library. It's a great introduction to art on an unforgettable scale.
The St. Johnsbury Athenaeum is open Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m.; Tuesday and Thursday from 2-7 p.m.; and Saturday from 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
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