A library is an essential foundation of a healthy community. In the early days of founding America, books and libraries were crucial. Most American founders received a classical education, and most of the members of the newly formed Congress were avid readers. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the love of scholarship gave rise to book collecting by individuals. Many private collections were being built by scholars and were important cornerstones to many public libraries today, including the Thomas Jefferson Building.
In the 1800s, when America’s capital moved from Philadelphia to Washington, President John Adams approved an act of Congress that provided books worth $5,000 for Congressional use. This marked the beginning of the Library of Congress. The Library was being maintained in the Capitol building until 1814 when the British troops burned down the Library and its 3,000 volumes during the War of 1812. Former President Thomas Jefferson came to the Library’s rescue and offered to sell around 6,000 books from his fine private collection. He believed that knowledge held power and that knowledge was linked to democracy. This shaped the philosophy of the Library of sharing its collections and services as widely as possible.
In the 1870s, Librarian of Congress, Ainsworth Rand Spofford, persuaded Congress to construct a much-needed building exclusively for the library collections. An architectural competition was held in 1873 and was built as the most extensive Library in the world in 1897. When it opened, this new Library was considered the most beautiful, educational, and attractive structures in the United States. This Italian Renaissance monument was called the Thomas Jefferson Building and was designed by the competition winners, John L. Smithmeyer and Paul J. Pelz, and American designer and architect Edward Pearce Casey during the later years. The design for the building was based on the Paris Opera House to reinforce the idea of learning and knowledge as a vital strength in upholding America. With three structures on Capitol Hill, the Thomas Jefferson Building, John Adams, and James Madison Memorial Buildings, the Library of Congress brings together the concerns of legislation, learning, and librarianship that greatly benefited American scholarship and culture.
Design of the Thomas Jefferson Building
The Main Building of the Library of Congress or the Thomas Jefferson Building was the first building in Washington to embrace the Italian Renaissance style of architecture or Beaux-Arts as it is better recognized today. The materiality of marble, granite, bronze, gold, etc., complete with a dome plated on 23-carat gold, gave the building a theatrical and ornamental detail that perfectly suited a young nation in the Gilded Age. The Library follows a 19th-century French concept in planning. It is situated on its own block with a complex entrance that prepares the user to proceed through the space based on its function. The book storage and archives in the Thomas Jefferson Building are rationally located and hidden from the public but served the central reading room efficiently. In plan, the Thomas Jefferson Building is rectangular and hollow in nature with a rotunda, main book stacks, and four courtyards, which have been filled with more book stacks eventually.
Charles Garnier’s Paris Opera House was the primary source of inspiration for Smithmeyer and Pelz. Many significant features were derived from this model, like the arcaded entryway, giant double columns, symbolic sculptures, etc. The main entrance to the Thomas Jefferson Building is right at the top of the grand front stairway, through an arched entry into the Great Hall. The three arches enhance the massive bronze double doors of 14-foot heights that lead to the Great Hall. The Great Hall that sits on the first-floor level is adorned with white marble, stucco decoration, detailed gold ceilings, and the famous figures of Minerva by American sculptor Herbert Adams. The flooring is made of white Italian marble and brown Tennessee marble with brass inlays. Beyond the hall are the two grand multi-level staircases lit up with the stained glass ceiling.
Librarian of Congress, Ainsworth Spofford, specified a new system of organizing books for the octagonal Main Reading Room. The eight giant marble columns that surround the reading room represent eight categories of knowledge, namely Philosophy, Art, History, Commerce, Religion, Science, Law, and Poetry, and the book stacks are organized according to these columns. The columns are flanked by sixteen bronze statues of individuals renowned for their accomplishments in each category of knowledge. The domed reading room has a central oculus on the ceiling, which is encircled by murals by the painter and muralist Edwin Blashfield that depicts historical contributions to society. The North Corridor on the first floor features the theme of ‘Family and Education’ leading to the Librarian’s office from the Northwest Pavilion. The Librarian’s office was only used from 1897 to 1980 and was then moved to the Madison Building and is now used primarily for ceremonial purposes.
The fundamental function of libraries is to create order out of the plethora of world knowledge. The Thomas Jefferson Building is the only building in Washington that expresses this systemic organization in its architecture. As a repository of knowledge, the Library holds more than 103 million items, including books, maps, films, music, manuscripts, and photographs from all over the world in 450 different languages. The Thomas Jefferson Building is an iconic national institution that is recognized as an architectural marvel that celebrates learning, art, nationalism, and confidence. It reflects the achievements of western civilization in various fields and celebrates education in a structurally dramatic fashion.