In the middle of Market Square, across from North Church, sitting quietly between retail shops of matching facades, there is an historical building which houses even more historical artifacts, manuscripts, paintings, and photos of the Portsmouth area, dating back to the 1400s.
Though open to the public intermittently throughout the week and immediately recognizable to those “in-the-know,” this building, and its impressive cache, may be one of the most hidden-in-plain-sight treasures of the city. The outwardly non-descript Portsmouth Athenaeum, one of only 16 member-funded libraries left in America, has nothing short of extensive description inside its walls. The place to go for research on anything city-related, the library will be celebrating its 200th anniversary Wednesday, June 21 with a multitude of events, including a free exhibit at Discover Portsmouth.
As noted by its Keeper, Tom Hardiman, a man who recites specific dates, places, and names off the top of his head with the same ease most people can only muster for the alphabet, the Portsmouth Athenaeum’s current building, its third location since its establishment in 1817, was erected in 1805 by the New Hampshire Fire & Marine Insurance Company. Some of the original fire buckets and wall hooks can still be seen in building’s collection and along its walls, as the library kept many items left behind when it took over the building in 1823.
The insurance company specifically designed the entrance room of the Athenaeum as a Reading Room, and the library has continued that purpose to present day. This space is the second-oldest reading room still in use in America, and provides the defining characteristic necessary to be considered an “athenaeum,” as opposed to a normal “library.” The grand windows, cozy chairs, and long table provide both a utilitarian and a social gathering spot, which seems to be exactly how the founding members…