Athenaeum of Philadelphia


Photo: Peter Woodall

Photo: Peter Woodall











Address: 219-221 6th Street
Neighborhood: Washington Square West
Year Built: 1845-47
Architectural Style: Italianate Revival
Architect: John Notman
Philadelphia Register of Historic Places: 1956
National Register of Historic Places: 1977
Current Use:  Private library

Historical Background
The Athenaeum was founded in 1814 to collect materials “connected with the history and antiquities of America, and the useful arts, and generally to disseminate useful knowledge” for public benefit.  It remains a nationally significant collection, especially for architecture and interior design history for the period 1800 to 1945.  Named after Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, many “Athenaeums” flourished in 19th century America.  Few of these private libraries supported by dues-paying members survive, however.

The Athenaeum held a closely watched competition to determine who would design its new building.  The library chose the drawing by John Notman, a young and relatively little known architect, over those of three of the best-known architects of the period, William Strickland, John Haviland and Thomas Ustick Walter.

Built in 1845, the Athenaeum building is widely hailed as the seminal American structure in the Italianate Revival Style.  Severely plain on the exterior and deceptive in scale, the Athenaeum building contains richly embellished reading rooms with 24-foot ceilings. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1977.

Some Community Stakeholders
Athenaeum members, Washington Square West neighbors

Possible Artistic Uses & Limitations
The space available for artistic use is what’s called the Chess Room, a small room measuring 13 1/2 by 14 1/2 feet. The Athenaeum operates as an archive used by members and scholars and would not suit installation with continued sound. The building is accessible for visitors with limited mobility. Electricity is present throughout. Due to the nature of its collection, this site might be an ideal location for works that reference its archives and/or work with its luxurious interior design.

Hidden City Philadelphia has secured provisional interest and commitment to participate from the owners or stewards of prospective sites for the 2013 festival. We cannot guarantee final festival participation for any site, as many are subject to transitional forces, such as changes in ownership or stewardship, development, hazmat remediation, public-private jurisdiction, access restrictions and, in some cases, continued physical deterioration.

With that said, we have secured interest and willingness from site owners and stewards to engage in a discovery process with artists, partner organizations, and other stakeholders concerning creative projects and public engagement. The realization of any artistic project for the festival will be the result of a collaborative process with, and eventual collective approval of, Hidden City staff, advisors, community stakeholders, and site owners.

Hidden City’s staff are facilitators and advocates with the goal of bringing about a productive and mutually satisfying relationship between artists and the other stakeholders essential to any creative process located in places where art making is not a regular activity.