In the town of St. Johnsbury, Vermont, a richly-appointed gallery has a window to the Yosemite Valley—specifically, a spot near the mid-point of Yosemite Falls with a panoramic view of the surrounding landscape. Though you might feel like you could step straight through to the Sierra Nevadas, the landscape is actually a massive painting created by the German-American artist Albert Bierstadt. “The Domes of Yosemite” is the heart of a collection full of wondrous pieces at the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum.
The St. Johnsbury Athenaeum serves as the town’s library as well as an art gallery. It was founded in 1871 by Horace Fairbanks, a businessman and former governor of Vermont. When it first opened, the Victorian building offered up a library of 8,000 books. Fairbanks saw the athenaeum as a gift to the St. Johnsbury community. “My highest ambition will be satisfied and fullest expectations realized,” he said in a public announcement at the opening, “if now and in the coming years, the people make the rooms of the Athenaeum a favorite place of resort for patient research, reading, and study.”
In 1873, the gallery was added to the house and showcased Fairbanks’s art collection, which included several Hudson River School paintings alongside works collected during his European travels.
Fairbanks acquired “The Domes of Yosemite” in 1872. The gallery was designed to showcase the massive painting, which measures a whopping 15 feet wide and 10 feet tall. It takes up the entire back wall, and a carefully-placed skylight makes it feel like natural light illuminates the landscape scene. In 2017-18 the painting underwent cleaning and restoration. The process cleared off old varnish that was hiding some of Bierstadt’s masterful detail work, and ensured that the painting would remain intact for decades to come.
In November 2021, the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum celebrated its 150th anniversary. The building’s 19th-century architecture has been beautifully preserved. But even as its collection has grown and changed (the library now holds some 45,000 volumes), the athenaeum has stayed true to its founding mission.
Know Before You Go
The Athenaeum is free for St. Johnsbury residents. For non-residents, entrance is $5 for individuals or $10 for families. Check the website for hours and events information.