Leave the classroom behind and instead let the tiny town of Exeter, New Hampshire guide you through 300 years of exhilarating American architecture.
Begin your walking tour with the magnificent Class of 1945 Library on the august grounds of Phillips Exeter Academy. Designed by modern master Louis Kahn, and completed in 1971, little about the building’s exterior betrays the awe that awaits you once inside. With a soaring, central atrium, the building’s spare elegance is a spiritual exercise in volume, mass and void.
Pick any spot along the tiers of clerestory, gallery and arcade and marvel at the pas de deux the muscle of material performs with the delicate diffusion of natural light that spirit the interior through Kahn’s eloquent orchestration of window and glass. Be mesmerized by the glimpses of Byzantine blue New England fall sky that adorn the view from the stacks this time of the year. Linger. Revel. But leave you must, to savor additional architectural treats that await you outside.
Relish the crisp Autumn air as you depart Kahn’s tour de force and consider the dialogue he creates with the adjacent dining hall he designed right next door. Meander the leafy academy campus where stately, brick Georgian houses, dormitories and halls converse with bold new additions including the Phelps Science Center and terrific Lamont Gallery. Enter the hushed interior of Memorial Chapel designed by champion of American Gothic Revival, Ralph Adams Cram, more famously known for his Church of St. John the Divine on Amsterdam Ave. Then head into town.
There you will find the handsome and historic bee-yellow clapboard Ladd-Gilman house at 1, Governor’s Lane, home to the excellent American Independence Museum appointed with lovely Revolution-era decorative arts. Collection highlights include two original drafts of the U.S. Constitution along with letters and documents by General George Washington.
The future President Lincoln and his famous 1860 campaign-stop at Exeter Town Hall is showcased at the nearby Exeter Historical Society, while the stately town hall itself was designed by prominent Bostonian Arthur Gilman and still proudly stands open to the public. Be sure to look up and appreciate the majestic statue of Lady Justice atop the building’s white painted cupola. Amble along Front Street for additional colonial buildings with splendid period detail, including the Tattersall House, Folsom Tavern and the Congregational Church with its lovely Palladian features.
Explore the sunburst and grapevine marble mosaics that embellish the Exeter bandstand at the center of town, then cross to the row of storefronts that line Water Street for a showcase of classic American mercantile design, inside and out. Visit the shops and cherish the stylish black and white checkered floors, the brass-trim on wooden display cases, fancy tin ceilings with floral festoons, curved bow front windows and Art Deco facades in sleek polished tile and cast stainless steel. Peek through the doors of the closed Ioka Theatre—the lobby is a delight of Hopper-esque gestalt and vignette.
Turn one block and end your Exeter excursion with a sparkling, picturesque view of the waterfalls forged by the Sqamscott River. Consider its majestic might and know it propelled the town’s colonial ascendancy, commercial ambitions and the prowess of its industrial mills. Reward your attentive schooling with a well-deserved lunch.
Good eats can be found at a number of spots, including Billingsgate Deli, The Green Bean and Hammersmith Sandwich Company who carry the wonderfully local Maine Root sodas in Blueberry, Sarsaparilla and a smashing Root Beer. A tip to the nation’s Tory past can be found at Cornucopia Wine and Cheese Market on Front Street where the fabulously fresh and cooling libation Mr. Q Cumber is a choice English import.
Keep an eye out for roadside farm stands as you head home. Stock-up on great bags of apples, pumpkins and gourds and savor the collection of historic buildings that can only be found and best surveyed in quiet New England towns on a perfect fall day.
When visiting the Phillips Exeter Academy Library, please be sure to follow the requested protocol and sign the Guest Book at the circulation desk. Go to www.exeter.edu/libraries for more information and visiting hours.