Down in History: The Story of The St. John’s Athenaeum

John E. Maunder describes St. John’s at the beginning of the nineteenth century as “…a rowdy, dirty and disorganized little fishing village and military garrison of about 5000 souls … a literary and cultural wasteland.”

In the fall of 2016, Newfoundland and Labrador’s Liberal government threatened to close dozens of the province’s public libraries. They were met with widespread outrage and had to begin back peddling on the closures. Turns out Newfoundlanders have been passionate supporters of libraries for centuries. 

In  “The Newfoundland Museum: Origins and Development,” John E. Maunder describes St. John’s at the beginning of the nineteenth century as “…a rowdy, dirty and disorganized little fishing village and military garrison of about 5000 souls … a literary and cultural wasteland.”

Maunder goes on to say that the launch of St. John’s first newspaper in 1807 spurred an interest in literacy and education. He notes that within the paper’s first three months, ads for new schools began popping up in its pages.

By 1810, another paper had emerged and shortly after that, the St. John’s Subscription Library was formed. By 1820 the Subscription Library had been replaced by the new Saint John’s Library Society, who offered a public reading room in the Freemason’s Tavern.

“Gradually, the tradesmen and the other professionals of the rapidly growing town, came to see the advantages of setting up “learned societies,” where ideas could be exchanged, knowledge acquired, and acquaintances made,” Maunder wrote.

In 1851, the St. John’s Athenaeum was born out of the amalgamation of three groups focused on building the “learned societies” Maunder describes; the Young Men’s Literary Society and Scientific Institute, the St. John’s Library and Reading Room, and the Mechanic’s Institute.

The Athenaeum was a combination library, auditorium, and museum, like today’s libraries it was an important cultural and community hub. Lots of documents remark on the grandeur of the physical building, which was located on Duckworth Street where the Newfoundland and Labrador Provincial Museum would later be built.

Louise Whiteway describes the interior in The Dalhousie Review saying, “The building was in the ornate Victorian style and the hall particularly splendid. Its cupola-shaped ceiling was laid out in eight panels, surrounded by painted stucco mouldings … Shakespeare, Raphael, Sir Walter Scott, and Edmund Burke were painted larger than life size. The horizontal part of the ceiling was in gold and colours, and encircled with a wreath of roses and leaves.”

The library held about 2500 books when it opened, and the collection eventually grew to approximately 6000 volumes. The Athenaeum’s auditorium could seat 1000 people and was home to a popular lecture series that often included choral music after a speaker.

In addition to offering a reading room and lecture series, the Athenaeum hosted natural history exhibits. According to Larry Dohey’s “Archival Moments,” an 1886 exhibit featuring a bull-moose skull generated a ton of excitement in St. John’s. Moose aren’t native to Newfoundland, and they wouldn’t be introduced until ten years later when the government imported two from Nova Scotia. It’s safe to say the novelty has worn off at this point.

In 1892, a lit pipe or match found its way into a bale of hay, and started the infamous great fire.  The fire burned down most of the city and left 11,000 people homeless. Among the $13 million in damages was the loss of the Athenaeum, which was reduced to its stone skeleton.

Soon after the fire a less ostentatious Athenaeum was built and quickly filled with donated books, demonstrating the city’s fervour for the communal consumption of arts and culture. A fervour that was re-ignited last fall when our public libraries were threatened.

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