In St. Johnsbury, Vermont there is a gem, a real gem, not a shiny bauble, but something truly valuable. It is called the Athenaeum. Built in 1871, it stands proudly on Main Street as a monument to the beautiful architecture known as the Second Empire. As lovely on the inside as it is on the outside one finds oneself gaping at the Victorian-style design which highlights intricate paint/stencil schemes, detailed moldings, creative natural lighting, and unique painting installations. Two years after it was built, Horace Fairbanks who was the manufacturer of the world’s first platform scale, added an art gallery. The gallery’s black walnut walls and floor fairly gleam with the light that streams down from an arched skylight in the ceiling.
I first stepped into this luxuriant space just over a year ago. I was so taken by the beauty that I could scarcely breath. The artwork in the gallery is exquisite and includes an amazing still life the likes of which I have never seen before. In fact, I’ve always thought still life was a bit of a bore until I encountered this one. However, (and you knew there would be a however, didn’t you?) what I love most are the books. Well, not all of the books, of course. I love the books of the balcony. The books that one must climb to attain. The lovely walnut stairs that spiral like a perfect nautilus draw me up to a world where books worth reading rest in the hope of once again being caressed and perused and loved.
Today I climbed those stairs alone for the first time. You see, I thought they were off limits until three weeks ago when I asked for a book that I heard about on a radio program I listen to. The book was called To Have and to Hold by Mary Johnston, and it dated back to 1900. The volume I checked out was from 1904. I finished it this afternoon and immediately went to the Athenaeum (I love that name, don’t you?) and started my quest for the next treasured book. I plan to go from one end to the other, so I started at the back wall. OH, don’t I wish my children were young again, for there in that corner were my beloved Bobbsey Twin books!
I was not searching for something for children though. Perhaps another Mary Johnston volume like the one I greedily devoured over the last two weeks. It was based in my beloved Virginia when the settlement was young, and the world was new. I could see the landscape. I could smell the air. I knew the names of John Rolfe, Governor Wyatt, Capt. Percy and Opechancanough. I imagined the palisade, the fort, the ships. I heard the birdsong, and I was home again! OH to visit sweet Jamestown again!
Before I could find Mary Johnston’s books, I found another favorite of mine…Sigrid Undset whose stirring novel of the life of Kristin Lavransdatter had taken me to Norway. Ah, Norway, a land I may never see, but one I love nonetheless! My mother’s mother was full Norwegian, so I am drawn to it. Thanks to the lovely books of the balcony at the gem called the Athenaeum in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, I am on my way on another journey to Norway with Sigrid.