Victorian-era art collection protected with high-tech skylights

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Replacing the Victorian Era skylights above the St. Johnsbury, Vt., Athenaeum will pay off with energy savings and collections preservation.

ST. JOHNSBURY, Vt. – For almost 140 years, the original metal and glass Victorian-style skylights above the Art Gallery at St. Johnsbury Athenaeum protected one of the most prized art collections in the country from the unpredictable weather of northern New England.

The Art Gallery at the Athenaeum features more than 120 paintings, sculptures, and other fine works highlighting the American landscape, classical studies, and reproductions of Renaissance and Baroque masterworks. Many paintings by the Hudson River School artists are on display including Jasper Cropsey, Asher B. Durand, Sanford Gifford, and Worthington Whittredge. The most prominent painting in the Gallery is Albert Bierstadt’s mammoth 10- by 15-foot masterpiece “Domes of the Yosemite,” one of the most famous paintings in America.

An in-depth analysis of the condition of the skylights revealed that they were severely deteriorated to a point requiring wholesale replacement. For the past three years, the Athenaeum has been working to recreate new skylight frameworks that are carefully designed to replicate as closely as possible the dimensions and look of the original while accommodating the weight of a new glazing system. The project includes the restoration of the main 18- by 12-foot skylight, two smaller 4-foot square skylights that flank the main skylight, and the replacement of the Hyphen skylight, a 7-foot square skylight, originally located in the art gallery’s entrance hall.

A triple-glazed window glass system from SAGE Electrochromics, Inc. will incorporate electronically tintable insulated glass units and a layer of textured glass that will match the existing historic glass in the skylights. This system will control light levels in the Art Gallery and eliminate the need for the installation of a mechanical blackout shade. The triple-glazing will also improve the thermal efficiency of the skylight and address concerns about condensation on the glass and humidity levels in the gallery.

“We were struggling to find a solution to block the UV rays without using a retractable screen that would have seriously compromised the esthetic appeal of the Victorian-style gallery,” states Werner Heidemann, Skylights Project Manager and member of the Athenaeum’s Board of Trustees.

Founded in 1871 and designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1998, St. Johnsbury Athenaeum is a private, non-profit public library and art gallery that serves to promote life-long learning through art, literature, and information services. The Vermont Division for Historic Preservation also provided funding for the restoration project.

Completion of the project is planned for November 2011 in time for the 140th anniversary of the Athenaeum.

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