It was William Tudor, one of the cofounders of the Boston Athenaeum, who first compared Boston with Athens because of its many cultural and educational institutions; Bostonians now jealously guard the title "Athens of America." One of the oldest libraries in the country, the Athenaeum was founded in 1807 from the seeds sown by the Anthology Club (headed by Ralph Waldo Emerson's father) and moved to its present imposing quarters—modeled after Palladio's Palazzo da Porta Festa in Vicenza, Italy—in 1849. Only 1,049 proprietary shares exist for membership in this cathedral of scholarship, and most have been passed down for generations; the Athenaeum is, however, open for use by qualified scholars, and yearly memberships are open to all by application.
The first floor is open to the public and houses an art gallery with rotating exhibits, marble busts, porcelain vases, lush oil paintings, and books. The children's room is also open for the public to browse or read a story in secluded nooks overlooking the Granary Burying Ground. Take the guided tour to spy one of the most marvelous sights in the world of Boston academe, the fifth-floor Reading Room. With two levels of antique books, comfortable reading chairs, high windows, and assorted art, the room appears straight out of a period movie, rather than a modern scholarly institution. Only eight people can fit in the tiny elevator to the fifth floor, so call at least 24 hours in advance to reserve your spot on the tour. Among the Athenaeum's holdings are most of George Washington's private library and the King's Chapel Library, sent from England by William III in 1698. With a nod to the Information Age, an online catalog contains records for more than 600,000 volumes. The Athenaeum extends into 14 Beacon Street.