By JOHN Y. COLE
When its doors opened to the public in 1897, the Library of Congress represented an unparalleled national achievement: its 23-carat gold-plated dome capped the "largest, costliest and safest" library building in the world. Its elaborately decorated interior, embellished by works of art from more than 40 American painters and sculptors, linked the United States to classical traditions of learning and simultaneously flexed American cultural and technological muscle.
A guidebook of the time boasted: "America is justly proud of this palatial monument to its National sympathy and appreciation of Literature, Science and Art. It has been designed and executed entirely by American art and American labor. It is a fitting temple for the great thoughts of generations past, present, and to be." This new national "temple," also a celebration of the American belief in knowledge-based democracy, immediately met with overwhelming approval from politicians and public alike. An exhibition has been mounted to honor the building's centennial.
The attention and appreciation deservedly given the art and architecture of the Library of Congress building (known since 1980 as the Thomas Jefferson Building) sometimes obscures an important fact: It was built specifically to serve as the American national library and its architecture and decoration both express and enhance this fundamental purpose.
The Library of Congress building and the idea for a "national" library are thoroughly intertwined, for each was the dream and ultimately the achievement of Ainsworth Rand Spofford (1825-1908), the energetic Librarian of Congress from 1864 to 1897. The new building was a crucial step in Spofford's transformation of the institution from a Library devoted primarily to serving the U.S. legislature into a national institution that also served the American public. It provided space for collections and eventually for new services. A functional, state-of-the-art structure as well as a monument to American cultural nationalism, it used and celebrated the latest technology to demonstrate the new role of the library, not simply as a storehouse of knowledge, but also as a workshop for the efficient use of knowledge and information.
The Library of Congress was established in 1800 when the American government moved from Philadelphia to the new capital of Washington on the Potomac River. For 97 years the Library was housed in various locations in the U.S. Capitol building. In 1871, Librarian of Congress Spofford, who had centralized all U.S. copyright activities at the Library the previous year, found himself running out of space and suggested the construction of a separate building. His suggestion became a full-fledged proposal in the Library's 1872 annual report.
The general idea met with favor, but the early years of planning and construction were filled with controversy and delay. After two design competitions and a decade of debate about location and design, in 1886 Congress finally chose a plan in the Italian Renaissance style submitted by Washington architects John L. Smithmeyer and Paul J. Pelz. Structurally the architects followed the basic idea proposed by Spofford: a public building with a circular, domed reading room at the center, surrounded by ample space for the book stacks and the Library's various departments.
Controversy continued after the building was authorized in 1886. Responsibility for clearing the site was disputed and Capitol landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted protested the building's location because it shut out "the whole view of the Capitol building from Pennsylvania Avenue -- the main approach from Capitol Hill." A disagreement about the selection of the cement for the foundation proved to be architect Smithmeyer's undoing, and he was dismissed in 1888.
Congress placed the building's construction under the direction of Brig. Gen. Thomas Lincoln Casey, chief of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Casey and his Superintendent of Construction, civil engineer Bernard R. Green, had successfully completed the construction of the Washington Monument and the State, War and Navy (now Old Executive Office) building, and Congress trusted them. The cornerstone was laid on Aug. 28, 1890. Paul J. Pelz, who replaced Smithmeyer as architect in 1888, was himself dismissed in 1892, and replaced by architect Edward Pearce Casey, Gen. Casey's son, who was responsible for overseeing most of the interior decoration.
The building's elaborate decoration, which combines sculpture, mural painting and architecture on a scale unsurpassed in any other American public building, was possible only because Gen. Casey and Bernard Green lived up to their reputations as efficient construction engineers, completing the building for a sum considerably less than that appropriated by Congress. When it became apparent in 1892 that funds for "artistic enrichment" would be available out of the original appropriation, Casey and Green seized the opportunity and turned an already remarkable building into a cultural monument.
The two engineers were infused with a nationalism that complemented Spofford's aspirations for the Library. The 1893 World's Columbian Exposition provided an example of a cooperative artistic endeavor that combined architecture, sculpture and painting, and there are many similarities between the architecture and art of the 1893 exposition and the Library building. Both were government-sponsored ventures on a grand scale and, for the most part, in the same classical tradition. Many of the artists who contributed works to the Library building either helped design the imperial facades of the Chicago Exposition or exhibited their works within its pavilions; moreover, many of them repeated the idealistic themes and likenesses they had produced in Chicago.
Gen. Casey and Bernard Green were anxious to give American artists an opportunity to display their talents, and ultimately they commissioned more than 40 American sculptors and painters "to fully and consistently carry out the monumental design and purpose of the building." Casey and Green exercised final approval over the themes, images and words seen throughout the building, but these themes and images, along with the inscriptions and quotations on the building's walls, were chosen by many different people.
In a report to Congress in 1896, Superintendent Green stated that the total cost of the mural and decorative painting, the sculpture and the three massive bronze doors at the main entrance was $364,000. Even with the additional costs of gilding the building's dome, including the Torch of Learning at its apex, and the construction of the Neptune Fountain in front of the building on First Street, the building was completed for $200,000 less than the total congressional authorization of approximately $6,500,000.
As the building neared completion, Librarian Spofford submitted a report to Congress about his plans to reorganize the Library. His 16-page special report of Dec. 3, 1895, essentially is an extension of the ideas he expressed in his 1872 annual report. He proposed nine departments: printed books, periodicals, manuscripts, maps and charts, works of art, cataloging, binding, copyright and superintendent of the building. He urged consideration of expansion of the Library's staff in the new building, pointing out that its current size (38) compared unfavorably that of the Boston Public Library (140), which had "two-thirds as many volumes and no copyright business" and to that of the British Museum Library, which "with no copyright business and no circulation" employed 220 attendants in its eight departments, besides 160 engineers, electricians, laborers, window cleaners, police, etc."
From Nov. 16 to Dec. 7, 1896, as the building neared completion, the Joint Committee on the Library held hearings about the Library and its role and organization. Spofford and Green were the primary witnesses and took committee members on an extensive tour of the new structure. Nine distinguished librarians from around the country also testified, including Melvil Dewey and Herbert Putnam, a future Librarian of Congress.
During the hearings it became clear that the congressional library now increasingly referred to as "the Library of Congress," was considered to be the American national library, although precisely what that meant was unclear and indeed was debated in the hearings. Appended to the 279-page volume of hearings, published in 1897, is a table prepared by Spofford that compares the "proposed force and expenditure in the Library of Congress in its new building ... with similar service in the library of the British Museum, the National Library of France, the Royal Library of Prussia, and the Boston Public Library." Another special report from Spofford, "Use of the Congressional Library," dated Jan. 18, 1897, reiterates the collections and functions that the new building would have to accommodate, adjusting upward his request for cataloging staff and designating additional reading rooms, exhibit space, offices, and even "a room (or two) for a restaurant within the building."
On Feb. 19, 1897, on the eve of the Library's move into its new home, Congress approved an expansion and reorganization proposed by Librarian Spofford, to be effective July 1, 1897. The size of the Library's staff was increased from 42 to 108 -- exclusive of the staff authorized for the new office of Superintendent of the Building. In midsummer, the move of books, pamphlets, maps, manuscripts, prints, photographs, pieces of music and other collections from the Capitol to the new building began. Horse-drawn wagons carried more than 800 tons of material across the Capitol's east plaza.
The new Library building opened to the public on Nov. 1, 1897. For months, popular magazines had carried favorable articles about the structure, and few visitors were disappointed. Here was an American library building to match or surpass the finest in Europe. On Nov. 25, 1897, more than 4,700 visitors toured the Library during special Thanksgiving Day hours. Some reactions were ecstatic: Joseph E. Robinson of Washington wrote the Librarian of Congress that "not until I stand before the judgement seat of God do I ever expect to see this building transcended." Speaker of the House of Representatives Joseph G. Cannon called the Library the best public building in Washington, adding, "I am proud of it. My constituents are proud of it. ... It is a great show building. It is our building and worth the money."
On July 8, 1898, when the building was illuminated at night as an experiment, more than 13,000 people came to view it. A flurry of guidebooks, postcards, paintings, commemorative plates, spoons, cups, pillows and other souvenirs increased the institution's popularity. Visitors spread information about the Library and sometimes myths, such as this postcard message: "The dome is covered with solid gold from the Klondike."
One of the many enthusiastic critiques came from the wife of Sen. John A. Logan (D.-Ill., 1871-77) in her 1901 book, Thirty Years in Washington, which included two chapters about the Library, complete with floor plans. In florid prose, Mrs. Logan recognized what indeed had happened: "The new Library of Congress is a monument of a nation which has emerged from the darkness of doubts and dangers into the full glory of conscious power. ... It is the people's Library, through originally designed simply as a Library of Congress. It is more freely open to the people of the whole country than are any of the great libraries of the world."
The enthusiastic reaction to the building from the public, architectural critics and members of Congress was both gratifying and useful to Librarian Spofford, because it focused attention on the institution and helped it attain its unique national status. The sumptuous interior, the statues, paintings and inscriptions all contributed, he felt, to the "public intelligence" and also "to elevate and to refine the public taste."
However, the most significant aspect of the new building for Spofford was the new space: the 326,000 square feet of floor space now available for the "national collections," which he had been accumulating for three decades. For the first time, those collections could be efficiently organized and made available to Congress and particularly to the public. With ample space for growth, an expanded staff and support from a well-pleased Congress, the Library of Congress could soon undertake the services expected of a truly national library.