Walls: Minneapolis Anthenaeum

Founded in 1859, its early members were the usual 19th-century übermenschen.

Minneapolis Anthenaeum
Photo by Cameron Wittig

If these walls could talk. The Minneapolis Athenaeum was founded in 1859 and its early members were the usual 19th-century übermenschen, wealthy men with familiar names—Pillsbury, Walker, Loring—who wanted Minneapolis to have access to world-class books.

It was a private subscription library before being consolidated into the central library in 1885. Now it exists as a sort of Illuminati library: a hidden, private collection on a 99-year lease, which is set to expire in 2015. The Athenaeum owns some of the rarest, most beautiful books in the world, like a copy of The Nuremberg Chronicle, which dates to 1492, and James Audubon’s famous Birds of America. Unfortunately, it proved impossible to actually photograph its vault.

We had been invited to see it by Sue Mackert, the shadowy director of Minneapolis’s literary cabal, but even this distinguished woman of letters couldn’t get us past the library’s gigantic head of security. “Not gonna happen,” he said. “That’s why it’s called a vault.”

His two uniformed colleagues brought Birds to a room on the third level for our shoot. But I was almost too frustrated to pay attention to the gorgeous book that lay before me. “Double elephant folio,” the guard grunted.

Evidently this guy knew as much about rare books as an auctioneer at Sotheby’s. The Athenaeum had bought Birds in 1909 for $2,722—the same edition had recently been sold at auction for more than $8 million. But I wanted inside that vault. Didn’t care if there was a Gutenberg in the room. “Nope.” Hulk crossed his arms. “You don’t understand how much these books are worth.”