Treasures of the Athenaeum Part III: The Somnolent Years, 1900 to 1980

No institution survives 200 years without keepers of the flame, and the Portsmouth Athenaeum’s next exhibit not only continues a yearlong bicentennial celebration, but focuses on 15 people who helped the membership library and museum survive its sleepiest period.

“Treasures of the Athenaeum Part III: The Somnolent Years, 1900 to 1979” opens with a public reception from 5 to 8 p.m. on Friday, July 7, in the Athenaeum’s Randall Gallery at 9 Market Square.

“The membership begins to fall off at the beginning of that period, which I attribute to the public library being instituted and the founding of the Portsmouth Historical Society,” exhibit curator Ronan Donohoe said.  “There were other places to get your reading, other repositories for your family’s sacred objects. And you didn’t have to pay a membership fee.”

Donohoe said one of the keepers of the flame was Garland Patch, who worked as a master welder at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and in 1947 undertook a renovation of the building.

“He helped his father with custodial work in the Athenaeum and eventually assumed his father’s duties; he became so knowledgeable on the Athenaeum collections that he was appointed curator, the first person to hold the post,” Patch’s Athenaeum biography reads. “His remarkable photograph collection was donated to Strawbery Banke.”

Patch eventually oversaw a transformation of the downstairs Reading Room, updated recently in honor of the bicentennial.

Donohoe describes the Athenaeum’s holdings as “a trove of wonderful, unexpected things.”

The exhibit will include a model of the Gold Hunter, which ran aground off Maine’s Boon Island lighthouse in 1892 and was rescued by those on the tiny island, including lighthouse keeper William C. Williams.

“The model is said to have been carved by the lighthouse keeper,” Donohoe said.

A recently rediscovered 5-by-8-foot Inuit caribou hide will also be on display. “It’s from northern Labrador and is painted with a big bull’s eye — black and green and orange and red circles,” Donohoe said. “It looks like a dartboard. It came to us between 1900 and 1960.”

In his research, Donohoe unearthed a 1952 letter from William Whitehill, for many years director of the Boston Athenaeum. He describes the Portsmouth Athenaeum as “the most delightful place I’ve ever seen.”

There are some indications that the membership of the Portsmouth Athenaeum during this period liked the fact that it was somnolent, Donohoe said.

In the 1970s, Portsmouth librarian and famed preservationist Dorothy Vaughan (the Athenaeum’s first female board member) said of the Athenaeum: “It’s a funny little place, and we want to keep it that way.”

The Athenaeum was known at this time for its annual tea, and a large silver tea service will be part of the exhibit, along with a photo depicting Market Square, complete with buses and cars in a rotary in the middle of the square, circa 1947-52, Donohoe said.

How did the Athenaeum weather this 80-year period?

Lawrence R. Craig, who penned a brief history in the 1960s for the Athenaeum’s sesquicentennial wrote:

The policy of the Athenaeum has always been progressive, keeping up with the times and making changes when the needs demanded, but without that spirit of radical change and unrest that sometimes characterizes our more modern institutions that are established in one generation and pass out of existence in the next.

The free exhibit was assembled with the assistance of Athenaeum Librarian Robin Silva, Athenaeum Photographic Collections Manager James Smith, Robert LaRoche of Exeter and Elizabeth Farish of Strawbery Banke.

It is open Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays from 1 to 4 p.m.

Compiled by Sherry Wood. The Athenaeum’s bicentennial sponsors are Kennebunk Savings Bank, Piscataqua Savings Bank, Provident Bank, The Rosamund Thaxter Foundation and UBS Financial Services of Portsmouth.


Keeper of the Flame: Lawrence Craig

Lawrence Craig wrote a Portsmouth Athenaeum history in 1966;  he owned Craig Flower Shop on Market Street.

Detail of PS0881_04, Small Photograph Collections

Keeper of the Flame: Rev. Alfred Gooding

The Rev. Alfred Gooding was Athenaeum president from 1892 to 1934.

P28_002, South Church Photograph Collection

Keeper of the Flame: Dorothy Vaughan

Portsmouth librarian and preservationist Dorothy Vaughan served as the first female on the Athenaeum board of directors.

PS0967, Small Photograph Collections

Exhibit At A Glance

Friday July 7, 2017

5 – 8 p.m.

Free Opening Reception in Randall Gallery

Third Floor, Portsmouth Athenaeum