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The Reynolds Family, part 3: Athenaeum

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Corinthian Hall Rochester

Corinthian Hall was originally built by William A. Reynolds to house and support the historic Athenaeum and its library. Image courtesy of the Local History & Genealogy Division, Rochester Public Library.

On June 12, 1829, a year after Abelard Reynolds opened his Arcade, sixty business leaders gathered in a room on its second floor to launch the Rochester Athenaeum.  Nathaniel Rochester became its first president, a title he retained until his death two years later. Each member paid a five-dollar fee to fund a library that began with 400 volumes and would subscribe to Eastern newspapers and periodicals. The goal was to encourage adult education particularly in the fields of science and technology.

Expectations for the Athenaeum were initially high. It enjoyed so much success that the leadership applied for a New York State charter, which was granted on February 12, 1830. But soon it faced a powerful challenge from a very close source.

William A. Reynolds, Abelard’s son, felt his father’s organization was stodgy with little appeal for men his own age. In 1836, he founded the Mechanics Literary Association. In a short time, it acquired one hundred members who were drawn to its library of 1500 books.

A year later, an Irish immigrant named Henry O’Reilly formed yet another library-based institution. The editor of an early Rochester newspaper called The Daily Advertiser, O’Reilly is best remembered today as the author of a book, Sketches of Rochester (1838), that describes the founding and earliest growth of our city. O’Reilly’s concern was for young men most affected by Rochester’s high rate of unemployment at that time. He formed the Young Men’s Association to promote “the moral and intellectual improvement of the young men of the city.” It soon became the most prominent of the library societies. The Athenaeum saw that its only hope for survival was to merge with O’Reilly’s group thus creating the “Athenaeum and Young Men’s Association.” It offered a library of almost 3,000 volumes and a reading room “regularly supplied with thirty-five of the principal Reviews and Magazines in the United States and Great Britain.”

Gradually interest waned among the younger men—the very group it was meant to serve.  Sinking into debt, the organization was forced to sell some of its books. When, in 1842, Henry O’Reilly moved away from Rochester, the institution was on the verge of collapse.

William Reynolds’ organization was also languishing when he came up with a bold plan. He combined the two organizations into one, the Rochester Athenaeum and Mechanics Association.  Then he built a lecture and concert hall—Corinthian Hall—to house and support the newly formed group. Over the coming years, such speakers as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Horace Greeley and others filled the Hall’s eleven hundred seats so frequently that, by 1857, the Athenaeum was debt-free and its library fully supported. So great was this intellectual forum that one of its directors referred to it as a People’s College.

There was a brief possibility that the Athenaeum might become a real college when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Land-Grant Acts of 1862. Through the sale of federal lands, the United States offered funding for northern states (this was during the Civil War, of course, when southern states had seceded) to create colleges that taught “such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic[al] arts.” The “People’s College” in Rochester failed to qualify for funding, however, as New York’s money went to the yet-to-be chartered Cornell University in Ithaca.

As the Civil War ended, the nation went into an economic depression and Rochester was severely affected. Local investors suffered major financial losses, including William Reynolds who, in 1865, was forced to sell Corinthian Hall. The Athenaeum’s library struggled to maintain its collection despite the rising costs of books and periodicals. Its future looked even less certain several years later when the Corinthian’s new owners raised the rent. By then Reynolds was president of the Rochester Savings Bank and moved the association, rent-free, into its upstairs rooms. In 1872, William died and, three years later, the bank evicted the Athenaeum. Forced to pay rent at a new location, the organization again slipped into debt. By the summer of 1877, creditors demanded a public sale of the library to recover seventeen hundred dollars that was due them.

It would be up to Mortimer F. Reynolds of 150 Spring Street, Abelard Reynolds last surviving child, to find a way to save the collection. It wasn’t going to be easy.