By BARBARA WOLANIN
Following is an essay reprinted from The Library of Congress: The Art and Architecture of the Thomas Jefferson Building, W.W. Norton and Company, 1997.
The original splendor and harmony of the 1897 Thomas Jefferson Building, which had been obscured for decades, has been restored through the efforts of hundreds of skilled people in a project managed by the Architect of the Capitol over a period of a dozen years.
Architects and engineers produced detailed plans and drawings. Workers installed new data and telecommunications cables, as well as new air-handling ducts, security systems and sprinklers; and they upgraded plumbing, electrical systems and elevators. New mahogany colonnades were constructed to create reading rooms and staff offices without impinging on the historic architecture. Craftsmen restored light fixtures and windows, installed brocade wall coverings and reinstalled carved and inlaid wood, mosaic, stained glass and marble. Decorative painters and mural conservators worked high on scaffolds, and the beauty of the late-19th century architectural decoration and art they so painstakingly restored is immediately apparent. Many other important aspects of the renovation, which prepared the building for the 21st century in terms of comfort, safety and technology, are almost invisible.
Today, it is difficult, when touring the Thomas Jefferson Building, once the largest and most costly library building in the world, to picture the problems that came to characterize it in the decades after its opening, as it became increasingly overcrowded by constantly growing staff and collections. By the 1970s elaborately decorated spaces were subdivided by partitions, and dropped ceilings concealed the murals above them. Offices filled corridors, corner pavilions and the second-floor galleries of the Great Hall, compromising the beauty and integrity of the building. Its restoration was made possible by the 1980 opening of the third library building, the James Madison Memorial Building, to which some staff, collections and services could be moved.
The idea of restoring the interior and bringing the building up to modern life-safety standards was first proposed by Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin (1975-1987) to Architect of the Capitol George M. White in 1977. Mr. White selected Arthur Cotton Moore & Associates in 1981 to develop designs and prepare construction documents. The firm's award-winning report and drawings, and its cost estimates, were the basis of the $81.5 million funding that Congress provided in the Second Supplemental Appropriations Act of 1984 (Public Law 98-396) for restoration and renovation work in the Thomas Jefferson and John Adams buildings. The renovation was unusually complex because of the need to keep half of the building functioning so that library services would not be disrupted; this necessitated extremely close coordination between the office of the Architect of the Capitol, which is responsible for maintenance and construction of the Library buildings, and the Library of Congress, which occupies them. Work under contract was conducted in two phases between 1986 and 1994, punctuated by the reopening of the Main Reading Room in 1991.
Restoration of architectural surfaces, decorative painting and murals was based on historical research and archival photographs as well as on sampling of paint layers. The decorative painters cleaned and repainted intricate plaster reliefs and moldings. They cleaned gold leaf and, in some cases, replicated the aluminum leaf toned to look like gold or copper. They also re-created intricate painted classical patterns and designs. The goal of the mural conservators was to uncover and preserve as much as possible the original work of 19 artists, each of whom used different materials and techniques. No two cycles of murals presented exactly the same problems. Many were black with grime and soot or covered with yellowed coatings. Some were flaking, others were damaged by abrasion or leaks, and a few had been repainted.
Today, surfaces once dark gray are again gleaming white. The graceful figures and rich colors of the murals can again be enjoyed, and the carefully planned harmony of colors in murals, wall decorations and mosaic floors or ceilings is once again clear. Long-dulled gold leaf now shines. Parquet, marble and mosaic floors, for years covered with carpet, tiles or linoleum, have been uncovered and restored. Blackened light fixtures covered by awkward modern shades are bright, showing their bouquets of light bulbs, and intrusive modern hanging lights have been removed. As a result of the restoration and renovation, the architectural and artistic beauty of the first Library of Congress building now shines. The work performed has ensured that, in addition to the information it houses, the magnificence of the Thomas Jefferson Building can be appreciated for generations to come.