Tracing its origins to the Providence Library Company, founded in 1753, the Athenaeum is one of the seven private-subscription libraries remaining in the country today. In this building, form, siting, and symbolism converge to create a sublime expression of emergent cultural pride and ambition (albeit access was then limited to those of the upper echelons who could afford it) at the dawn of the increasingly rapid institutional explosion in Providence. Designed by one of America’s masters of Greek Revival, Philadelphia’s William Strickland, in his only New England commission, it positions a small but monumental temple, dedicated to the God of Wisdom, on a miniature acropolis above Benefit Street: what better symbol for the precincts of learnedness? The interior, reworked by James Bucklin in the mid-nineteenth century, projects a welcoming intimacy highly appropriate for a space that celebrates love of reading. Norman Isham’s small addition on the southeast corner, with a balconied second story evocative of the main space, is now fronted by an addition by Warren Platner & Associates (New Haven). Using stone from the same quarry as the main block, it provides climate-controlled storage for the library’s impressive rare-book collection (including the copy of James Gibb’s 1728 Book of Architecture handed down through several generations of Providence builders).
– 2003 Guide to Providence Architecture