As You Like It: The Jewel of Beacon StreetBy Joan Florek Schottenfeld
My husband, Steve, runs a business from our house, which means I never get to see him anymore. Well, okay, I do pass him in the hall or the kitchen, but lately we’ve become ships in the night. When he used to work a typical nine-to-five job, our weekends were reserved for family and chores. But when you work from home, work-time and home-time blur together. Add my hectic job schedule to the mix and it’s a wonder that we still recognize each other without a pink carnation stuck in our lapels.
So whenever I have a day off I ask my husband out on a day-long date. We always look for something to do in Boston since we never tire of walking around the city, enjoying the sights like any other tourist. If it’s cold it’s a bit harder to find an activity, since I love museums but Steve only likes the smaller, quirkier ones.
Last Presidents’ Day we arrived at the Isabella Gardiner Art Museum only to see a line weaving down the street and around the block. We sighed, then drove off to find an adventure in a less crowded venue. It was then that I remembered another place that fellow library trustee and friend George Comeau had recommended a while back.
George’s face glows when he speaks about the Boston Athenaeum. He’s been a member there for years. When he heard that I had never visited he was horrified. I kept promising him that I would eventually, but somehow eventually never came. As it turned out, that February day was not the day, but another April day was.
We hoped that the weather would cooperate so that we could squeeze in our usual walk around Boston before we visited the Athenaeum. Happily, it was gloriously perfect. The sun was out and even the wind decided not to appear that day. We parked our car in the South End where we planned to have lunch and walked over to Beacon Street.
We stopped to admire old buildings, spring flowers, cute dogs, and Boston skylines. We waved at the tourists on the Duck Boats, bumped into hordes of them peering at maps, and felt infinitely superior to the bunch excitedly gathering at Cheers.
Approaching the Common, we finally found 10 ½ Beacon Street. I gaped at the two large red doors flanked by heavy carved ones. We entered silently and were welcomed by the receptionist, who told us that we were welcome to visit the first floor reading rooms and art gallery but the rest of the building was for members only. We hadn’t even been there for five minutes and already I wanted desperately to be a member. This place has that kind of effect on you.
Free and open to the public, the Boston Athenaeum was founded in 1807 by members of the Anthology Society, who began with a plan to have a reading room but then expanded their vision to include a library encompassing books in all subjects in English and foreign languages, a gallery of sculptures and paintings, collections of coins and natural curiosities, and even a laboratory … in 1809 (they) bought a small house adjacent to the King’s Chapel Burial Ground, and in 1822 moved into a mansion on Pearl Street. In 1849 the current location at 10 ½ Beacon Street opened.
We tiptoed in, barely breathing at the sheer loveliness of the space. High vaulted ceilings, graceful moldings, huge windows, sculpture and paintings everywhere. Books filled the central room and the art gallery led to small niches where people could rest and read. I was standing in the central room when I saw a dignified gentleman waiting for the elevator. I couldn’t resist asking him, “Are you lucky enough to work here?”
“I am,” he answered, and something in my wistful expression must have urged him to say, “Would you like to see the most beautiful room in the building on the fifth floor?”
“Oh yes!” I said, “Could I really?”
And so Robert took us up to the fifth floor reading room reserved for members. It was a jewel, echoing the design of the rest of the building, with tall windows, private research nooks, paintings, sculpture, and peace. Again we tiptoed — this was definitely a tiptoeing space — as he took down several first editions to show us. A Labrador slept peacefully beneath the desk of a researcher. Even dogs were respectful of this place. Robert took us out to a small terrace overlooking the city and we chatted about Boston, books and life.
After thanking him for the unique gift that he had given us, we returned to the first floor. As I wandered I discovered yet another treasure adjacent to the children’s room, a small children’s reading room named Chris’ library. The room was covered in soft, starry-night-blue carpeting whose theme was reflected in the overhead light which was designed as the earth revolving around the sun. There were two spacious yet cozy cushioned benches opposite large windows overlooking the Granary burying ground. Tourists milled around the tombstones while I sat peacefully longing for a child to bring here.
When we came home we looked up the Athenaeum staff to find that our wonderful tour guide had been Robert R. Ashton, director of development. Thank you Robert for turning a simple visit into a joy.
And thank you George. I owe you one.
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