Historic Sites

The Philadelphia Athenaeum: a historical treasure with a seemy underbelly

A film copy image of the Athenaeum dated to 1962.

Through May and June, Hidden City Philadelphia hosted the Hidden City Festival and raised a bit of a ruckus about some under-appreciated artifacts of Philadelphia’s history. One of those is the Athenaeum, located at 219 South 6th Street. In the landscape of Philadelphia historical sites, the trove of architectural books and other media at the Athenaeum sits barely out of range of the Liberty Bell limelight, often ignored by tourists intent on seeing the infamous cracked bell and overlooked by locals in pursuit of the cool grass in Washington Square park.

As described in the institution’s own annual report (2012), it’s “one of the few surviving Philadelphia historical organizations not founded by Benjamin Franklin.” According to the Inquirer, there are approximately 100,000 books in the library, 250,000 architectural drawing and 300,000 photos in its archives.

Perhaps the library’s humble founding mission — “connected with the history and antiquities of America, and the useful arts, and generally to disseminate useful knowledge” — contributes to its relative anonymity. But the Athenaeum itself is itself such an architectural curiosity that it and its contents warrant a more careful look.

The Athenaeum was founded in 1814, but the building that stands today was designed in 1845 by John Notman. The smallish structure is a beacon of Italianate architecture and represents one of the first brownstones in the city. In 1977, the building received the honor of being dubbed a National Historic Landmark.

Inside, the Athenaeum’s astoundingly vast collection is an ode to Philadelphia’s history of architecture and interior design, predominantly from 1800 -1945. Open for free (but by appointment) to students and researchers, the repository is a mine of old Philadelphia imagery and antiques. The library is one of the last remaining subscription libraries in the country and membership is required to borrow a book.

The Athenaeum’s Main Library Room.

But what lies below the Athenaeum is even more surprising than the fact that Philadelphians and tourists alike regularly pass by such an architectural and intellectual treasure. That’s because this somewhat unassuming building lies on top of the foundational remnants of the Walnut Street Prison — the country’s first state penitentiary.

The jail was built in 1777 and is reported to have been a place of laborious misery for inmates until 1790 when Quakers expanded the building and changed its philosophy of incarceration. Instead of unadulterated punishment, the Quakers emphasized repentance and reflection, hoping to elicit remorse and reform the prisoners through solitary confinement — a new approach at the time. Indeed it was the Quakers who transformed the hellish jail into a different kind of hellish penitentiary, spawning what was to be referred to as the “Pennsylvania System” of incarceration.

The institution, which was demolished in 1835, became the precursor for the Eastern State Penitentiary.

Today, the Athenaeum, is just one year shy of its 200th birthday and it’s had a facelift or two to prove it (In 2012, the East Balcony was repaired). And beneath it all, the remains of another social and architectural wonder. Thanks to the Hidden City Festival, perhaps this month and for the foreseeable future, this odd nexus of history, architecture, and imprisonment is finally getting some of the recognition —and maybe some of the tourist attraction — it deserves.