Take a look at changing face of Portsmouth Athenaeum

April 19. 2017 1:17PM

The “gasolier” on the Portsmouth Athenaeum’s second floor was presented to the Athenaeum in 1861 by the Rev. Charles Burroughs, Athenaeum president. The fixture was converted to electricity around 1950. (LeeAnn S. Wood)

PORTSMOUTH — When the Portsmouth Gas-Light Company began operations in 1851, the Portsmouth Athenaeum was among its first customers.

The membership of the private library and museum daringly voted on Aug. 11 to install the new lighting, and on Dec. 8, the lamps were lit.

“As usual with the first night, the lights were rather blue and dim at the first clearing of the pipes,” the Portsmouth Journal reported on Dec. 13. “... but by the third evening, they exhibited all the brilliance desired.”

This cutting-edge 19th-century technology is part of the story told by “High Hopes and Ambitious Plans — 1840-1899,” the second of four exhibits in 2017 marking the bicentennial of the Portsmouth Athenaeum.

“Part II is a lot about remodeling,” said exhibit curator Sandra Rux of the building at 9 Market Square.

An opening reception for the free exhibit in the Athenaeum’s Randall Gallery will be held on Friday from 5 to 7 p.m.

Rux said the 1840-1899 time period began with a growing membership and library.

In 1855, the Reading Room was redecorated in a popular Victorian style with frescoes; a furnace was added in the 1860s.

By 1861, the 10,000-plus volume library was bulging at the seams, Rux said. The center of the fourth floor was removed, creating an open gallery for books in the space once reserved for a Cabinet of Curiosities museum.

Another major redecoration in 1893-1895 — this one in the colonial revival style — added a fireplace to the Reading Room, where a group known as the “Athenaeum boys” liked to gather.

The Athenaeum did have female members; the first was Elizabeth Langdon Elwyn (1777-1860), daughter of Gov. John Langdon. But the chief positions in the organization were occupied by men.

“Leadership generally devolved to the ministers in town — the Rev Charles Burroughs until his death in 1867 and later to the Rev. Alfred Gooding (1856-1934) of the South Church,” Rux said. “But while the Athenaeum Boys continued to congregate in the remodeled Reading Room, by the century’s end, the Athenaeum seldom attracted newcomers.”

The Athenaeum exhibit is open Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays from 1 to 4 p.m. For details, call 431-2538 or go to portsmouthathenaeum.org.

Curator Sandra Rux will present a gallery talk on Saturday, May 6, at 11 a.m., titled “High Hopes and Ambitious Plans.”


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