On These Walls: Inscriptions and Quotations in the Buildings of the Library of Congress

TABLE OF CONTENTS - Introduction - A Brief History of the Library of Congress
The Thomas Jefferson Building - The John Adams Building - The James Madison Memorial Building
Author's Note and Acknowledgements - Further Reading - Concordance of Images


THE JOHN ADAMS BUILDING

In 1928, at the urging of Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam, Congress authorized the purchase of land directly east of the Library's Main Building for the construction of an Annex Building. The bill was sponsored by Robert Luce, chairman of the House Committee on the Library. On June 13, 1930, $6,500,000 was appropriated for the building's construction, for a tunnel connecting it to the Main Building, and for changes in the east front of the Main Building, including the construction of a Rare Book Room. An additional appropriation approved on June 6, 1935, brought the total authorization to $8,226,457.

The simple classical structure was intended as a functional and efficient bookstack "encircled with work spaces." David Lynn, the Architect of the Capitol, commissioned the Washington architectural firm of Pierson & Wilson to design the building, with Alexander Buel Trowbridge as consulting architect. The contract stipulated completion by June 24, 1938, but the building was not ready for occupancy until December 2, 1938. The move of the Card Division started on December 12, and it opened its doors to the public in the new building on January 3, 1939. The building is five stories in height above ground, with the fifth story set back 35 feet. It contains 180 miles of shelving (compared to 104 miles in the Jefferson Building) and can hold ten million volumes. There are 12 tiers of stacks, extending from the cellar to the fourth floor. Each tier provides about 13 acres of shelf space.


The John Adams Building The John Adams Building opened its doors to the public in 1939. Its dignified, classical exterior is faced with white Georgia marble.


On April 13, 1976, in a ceremony at the Jefferson Memorial marking the birthday of Thomas Jefferson, President Ford signed into law the act to change the name of the Library of Congress Annex Building to the Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building. On June 13, 1980, the structure acquired its present name, which honors John Adams, the man of letters and president of the United States who in 1800 approved the law establishing the Library of Congress.


Plaque on Second Street, S.E. in front 
of the Adams Building Plaque on Second Street, S.E. in front of the Adams Building. Today's Adams Building was called the Annex Building until 1976 and the Jefferson Building from 1976 to 1980.


The dignified exterior of the Adams Building is faced with white Georgia marble. Today, the building's decorative style is widely admired for elements inspired by the Exposition des Arts Decoratifs held in Paris in 1925 and the use of new materials such as acoustical block, formica, vitrolit, and glass tubing. Decorative features and metalwork in the first floor lobbies and corridors and in the fifth floor lobbies and reading rooms are worth special note.


THE WEST AND EAST ENTRANCE DOORS


The history of the written word is depicted in sculpted figures by Lee Lawrie on the bronze doors at the west (Second Street) and east (Third Street) entrances. The center doors at the west entrance contain six figures, which are repeated on the flanking doors of the east entrance. The figures are:

HERMES, the messenger of the gods
ODIN, the Viking-Germanic god of war and creator of the runic alphabet
OGMA, the Irish god who invented the Gaelic alphabet
ITZAMA, god of the Mayans
QUETZALCOATL, the god of the Aztecs
SEQUOYAH, an American Indian

The two flanking doors of the west entrance depict six other figures who are part of the history of the written word. The figures, repeated on the center door of the east entrance, are:

THOTH, an Egyptian god
TS'ANG CHIEH, the Chinese patron of writing
NABU, an Akkadian god
BRAHMA, the Indian god
CADMUS, the Greek sower of dragon's teeth
TAHMURATH, a hero of the ancient Persians


the bronze doors of the Adams Building The history of the written word is depicted in the bronze doors of the Adams Building, the work of sculptor Lee Lawrie. These figures on the center doors at the east (Third Street) entrance are repeated on the two flanking doors at the west (Second Street) entrance.


THE INDEPENDENCE AVENUE (SOUTH) DOORS


A sculpted stairway, complete with stylized owls and elaborate lamps, leads to the southern entrance on Independence Avenue. This entrance, though not presently used, was originally designed for the United States Copyright Office. Two figures are depicted on the doors. The male figure on the left door, beneath the seal of the United States, represents physical labor. The female figure on the right door, beneath the open book, represents intellectual labor.


THE NORTH READING ROOM (CHAUCER MURALS)


The murals by Ezra Winter in the North Reading Room illustrate the characters of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. The procession of characters on the west and east walls presents the Pilgrims in very nearly the order Chaucer introduced them in the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. The exception is Chaucer himself, whom the artist has interjected in the midst of the procession on the west wall. The Pilgrims, from left to right, on the west wall, are:

THE MILLER, IN THE LEAD PIPING THE BAND OUT OF SOUTHWARK; THE HOST OF TABARD INN; THE KNIGHT, FOLLOWED BY HIS SON, THE YOUNG SQUIRE, ON A WHITE PALFREY; A YEOMAN; THE DOCTOR OF PHYSIC; CHAUCER, RIDING WITH HIS BACK TO THE OBSERVER, AS HE TALKS TO THE LAWYER; THE CLERK OF OXENFORD, READING HIS BELOVED CLASSICS; THE MANCIPLE; THE SAILOR; THE PRIORESS; THE NUN; AND THREE PRIESTS.

The procession continues on the east wall with:

THE MERCHANT, WITH HIS FLEMISH BEAVER HAT AND FORKED BEARD; THE FRIAR; THE MONK; THE FRANKLIN; THE WIFE OF BATH; THE PARSON AND HIS BROTHER THE PLOUGHMAN, RIDING SIDE BY SIDE; THE WEAVER; THE DYER, THE ARRAS-MAKER; THE CARPENTER; THE HABERDASHER; THE COOK; THE SUMMONER; THE PARDONER; AND, AT THE END OF THE PROCESSION, THE REEVE.

The small rectangular painting above the clock on the north wall has the Prologue of the Tales as its subject, with the following quotation from the beginning:

WHAN THAT APRILLE WITH HIS SHOURES SOOTE
THE DROGHTE OF MARCH HATH PERCED TO THE ROOTE,
AND BATHED EVERY VEYNE IN SWICH LICOUR
OF WHICH VERTU ENGENDRED IS THE FLOUR;
WHAN ZEPHIRUS EEK WITH HIS SWETE BREETH
INSPIRED HATH IN EVERY HOLT AND HEETH
THE TENDRE CROPPES, AND THE YONGE SONNE
HATH IN THE RAM HIS HALVE COURS YRONNE,
AND SMALE FOWELES MAKEN MELOYDE
THAT SLEPEN AL THE NYGHT WITH OPEN YE
(SO PRIKETH HEM NATURE IN HIR CORAGES);
THANNE LONGEN FOLK TO GOON ON PILGRIMAGES...

A lunette with three musicians, on the south wall under the reference desk, inspired by the Prologue of the Franklin's Tale, is signed and dated, like the painting on the north wall, and is based on the following quotation from the introductory verse to the Prologue:

THISE OLDE GENTIL BRITOUNS IN HIR DAYES
OF DIVERSE AVENTURES MADEN LAYES,
RYMEYED IN HIS FIRSTE BRITON TONGE;
WHICHE LAYES WITH HIR INSTRUMENTZ THEY SONGE,
OR ELLES REDDEN HEM, OR HIR PLESAUNCE...


THE SOUTH READING ROOM (JEFFERSON MURALS)


Murals by Ezra Winter also decorate the South Reading Room. The theme for these four murals is drawn from Thomas Jefferson's writings, which are inscribed on the paintings and reflect Jefferson's thoughts on Freedom, Labor, the Living Generation, Education, and Democratic Government. The characters and costumes depicted are those of Jefferson's time. A portrait of Jefferson with his residence, Monticello, in the background is in the lunette above the reference desk at the north end of the room; the words in the lower left- had corner explain that THIS ROOM IS DEDICATED TO THOMAS JEFFERSON .

On the left half of the panel on the east wall, Jefferson's view on Freedom is depicted:

THE GROUND OF LIBERTY IS TO BE GAINED BY INCHES. WE MUST BE CONTENTED TO SECURE WHAT WE CAN GET FROM TIME TO TIME AND ETERNALLY PRESS FORWARD FOR WHAT IS YET TO GET. IT TAKES TIME TO PERSUADE MEN TO DO EVEN WHAT IS FOR THEIR OWN GOOD.

Jefferson to Rev. Charles Clay, January 27, 1790

Jefferson's views on labor, also on the east wall, are taken from his Notes on Virginia:

THOSE WHO LABOR IN THE EARTH ARE THE CHOSEN PEOPLE OF GOD, IF HE EVER HAD A CHOSEN PEOPLE, WHOSE BREASTS HE HAS MADE THE PECULIAR DEPOSITS FOR SUBSTANTIAL AND GENUINE VIRTUE. IT IS THE FOCUS IN WHICH HE KEEPS ALIVE THAT SACRED FIRE WHICH OTHERWISE MIGHT NOT ESCAPE FROM THE EARTH.

From Notes on Virginia, 1782

On the south wall, the panel over the clock contains a quotation about the Living:

THE EARTH BELONGS ALWAYS TO THE LIVING GENERATION. THEY MAY MANAGE IT THEN AND WHAT PROCEEDS FROM IT AS THEY PLEASE DURING THEIR USUFRUCT. THEY ARE MASTERS TOO OF THEIR OWN PERSONS AND CONSEQUENTLY MAY GOVERN THEM AS THEY PLEASE.

Jefferson to James Madison, September 6, 1789

On the left half of the panel on the west wall, Jefferson's view of Education is illustrated:

EDUCATE AND INFORM THE MASS OF THE PEOPLE. ENABLE THEM TO SEE THAT IT IS THEIR INTEREST TO PRESERVE PEACE AND ORDER, AND THEY WILL PRESERVE THEM. ENLIGHTEN THE PEOPLE GENERALLY, AND TYRANNY AND OPPRESSION OF THE BODY AND MIND WILL VANISH LIKE EVIL SPIRITS AT THE DAWN OF DAY.

Jefferson to James Madison, December 20, 1787 (first two sentences);
Jefferson to P.S. Dupont de Nemours, April 24, 18l6 (last sentence).


Thomas Jefferson's view of Education illustrated in this mural by Ezra Winter Thomas Jefferson's view of Education is illustrated in this mural by Ezra Winter in the South Reading Room on the top floor of the Adams Building. Other murals dedicated to Jefferson decorate all of the reading room's walls.


Jefferson's views on Democratic Government, also on the west wall, are illustrated:

THE PEOPLE OF EVERY COUNTRY ARE THE ONLY SAFE GUARDIANS OF THEIR OWN RIGHTS, AND ARE THE ONLY INSTRUMENTS WHICH CAN BE USED FOR THEIR DESTRUCTION. IT IS AN AXIOM IN MY MIND THAT OUR LIBERTY CAN NEVER BE SAFE BUT IN THE HANDS OF THE PEOPLE THEMSELVES, THAT, TOO, OF THE PEOPLE WITH A CERTAIN DEGREE OF INSTRUCTION.

Jefferson to John Wyche, May 19, 1809 (first sentence);
Jefferson to George Washington, January 4, 1786 (second sentence).


TABLE OF CONTENTS - Introduction - A Brief History of the Library of Congress
The Thomas Jefferson Building - The John Adams Building - The James Madison Memorial Building
Author's Note and Acknowledgements - Further Reading - Concordance of Images


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