The Boston Athenæum is now expanding the footprint of its longtime Beacon Street headquarters by around 15,000 square feet to create more welcoming spaces as not only an amenity for existing members, but also to give newcomers one more incentive to visit and join one of the country’s oldest independent libraries.
“An important part is creating these new, really wonderful spaces to read, to think, and to work, but also to engage with each other…and where members can have social interactions,” said Leah Rosovsky, the Stanford Calderwood Director of the Athenæum. “We’re also creating the spaces to appeal to new members. We’re eager to get new members and a wide range of new members, so we’re trying to create spaces that are welcoming.”
Founded in 1807, the Athenæum has called the historic building at 10 ½ Beacon St. home since 1849, and today, the library has over 500,000 circulating books. It also boasts a rare books collection of over 100,000 volumes; an art collection of 100,000 paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, photographs, and decorative arts; and research collections, including one of important collections of primary materials on the American Civil War.
“Highlights of the library’s holdings include exceptional primary sources for the study of United States history, including early published editions of foundational government documents and opinions on them, materials related to the abolitionist and women’s suffrage movements, and visual culture documenting both World War I and World War II; the King’s Chapel Library collection, with roots in the seventeenth-century settlement of Boston; the personal library of George Washington; historic early European printed works; and numerous works of fine art, including portraits of notable Americans such as Hannah Adams, John Marshall, and Alexander Hamilton, and by artists such as Gilbert Stuart, John Singer Sargent, Allan Rohan Crite, and Polly Thayer Starr,” according to the Athenæum.
“We also offer lots of programming and serve as a cultural center where people come to hear lectures and authors speak, as well as for discussion, and to exchange ideas,” added Rosovsky, who describes the Atheneum as a “place where members connect.”
The Athenæum’s membership is currently around 3,000 membership “units,” said Rosovsky, which can apply to either an individual or a single family.
The board had already been discussing the need to expand its physical space to better showcase the library’s collection, and to make it more broadly accessible for several years before Rosovsky took over as the 17th leader of the Athenæum in May of 2020.
“We have a wonderful collection of priceless works, and we wanted to create spaces to show them and to allow more access to them for the community as a whole,” said Rosovsky.
Just as important, though, was making the most of available space at the library.
“For many members, it’s the space that attracts them and curling up in one of our red leather chairs is one of the things they most enjoy,” said Rosovsky.
The Atheneum’s ongoing expansion entails taking over two floors of 14 Beacon St. while new pathways are being created to link 10½ and 14 Beacon St. The first passageway is on the first floor while the second connection will link the fourth floor at 10½ Beacon St. to the sixth floor at 14 Beacon St.
“It should feel seamless when you move from one building to the other,” said Rosovsky.
On the first floor near the existing entrance, the lobby will be renovated.
“The lobby will have better circulation and a much-more welcoming feeling to it,” said Rosovsky.
The area where the lockers are now would make way for a new handicap lift, and an approximately 850 square-foot Study Center is also planned for the second floor.
“We’ve never had a Study Center so it’s very hard to do something like bring in a college class to look at materials,” said Rosovsky, adding that the Study Center would also be able to accommodate other groups, such as high school students who could come see the historic images of Boston in the Athenæum’s collection.
Additionally each year, the Athenæum runs a teachers’ training program, and “part of it is teaching teachers how to use primary-source materials in their own teaching with their students,” said Rosovsky.
“The new Study Center will allow us to do this in a whole different way,” she said.
The Children’s Library, which was previously located at the rear of the first floor, will be relocated to the front of the building facing Beacon Street.
But unlike before, the new Children’s Library will focus on children ages 6 and under, said Rosovsky, since “we have a lot of demand and a lot of interest among that age group, and because there are a lot of children on Beacon Hill in that age group.”
Books for older children, which were previously found in the Children’s Library, will be located in the stacks near the regular adult reading fare.
A new space on the first floor will be open to members, as well as to visitors, and have an “interactive community feel,” said Rosovsky, with chairs and couches scattered about to allow for easy socializing.
“It will be a place where they can have a cup of coffee with fellow members, which they wanted,” she said, as well as a “members’ living room” where members can talk and book clubs can meet..
The erstwhile office space in the stacks will be reimagined as members’ space “for them to read, work, research, and write – all the things people do in our building,” said Rosovsky.
Adjacent to this space will be a room designed for meetings or small presentations.
Also on the first floor, the side of the building nearest to the Boston Common will be home to a new café.
“We want it to be a warm and welcoming place with really good food and good coffee and tea – somewhere where you might stop off to have something small on your way to somewhere else,” said Rosovsky. “It’s being designed to add something that’s not there now, and to bring some life back to this corner of the Hill. We hope that it’s going to be delightful and charming and going to do a lot to help revitalize the street.”
On the expanded fourth floor, new space will be created on the south side of the building. It will be an open area with couches and chairs, which would be open to members only. The adjacent kitchenette would only be accessible to members as well, while another meeting room will also be created on the fourth floor.
When the expansion project wraps up, now tentatively set for late fall, Rosovsky anticipates it will result in myriad new ways for members, as well as for the broader Beacon Hill community, to enjoy the Athenæum.
“We think it’s going to be really transformational, and a transformational moment in what we can offer our members and what we can offer the community more broadly,” she said. “It allows us to create [substantially increased] access to this truly wonderful treasure we have here. It also really allows us to enhance what is so beautiful and so special in the building itself.”
To learn more about the Boston Athenæum, visit bostonAthenæum.org.