On November 1, 1897, the new Library of Congress building opened its doors to the public. Previously, the Library had been housed in the Congressional Reading Room in the U.S. Capitol. In the twentieth century, two additional buildings were added to the Library of Congress complex on Capitol Hill.
America is justly proud of this gorgeous and palatial monument to its National sympathy and appreciation of Literature, Science, and Art.
In 1871, Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Spofford first suggested the construction of a separate building for the Library, which had outgrown its cramped quarters. According to Library historian John Y. Cole, Spofford envisioned “a circular, domed reading room at the Library’s center, surrounded by ample space for the Library’s various departments.” After much debate and two design competitions, Congress finally approved the plan in 1886, designed in the Italian Renaissance style by Washington architects John L. Smithmeyer and Paul J. Pelz. The building was an important step towards Spofford’s overall goal of establishing the Library of Congress as an American national library. When completed, it was the largest and costliest library building in the world.
Brigadier General Thomas Lincoln Casey and Bernard R. Green of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers assumed control of the project in 1888. They soon began to focus on the interior of the building, which they hoped to make a showcase for the talents of American artists and artisans. “The elaborate embellishment” of the building’s interior, writes Cole in Jefferson’s Legacy: A Brief History of the Library of Congress, “is worth careful attention, for few structures represent human thought and aspiration in such dramatic fashion.”
In 1980, the building was renamed the Thomas Jefferson Building in honor of the nation’s third president. Jefferson sold his personal collection of 6,487 books to the Library of Congress in 1815, after its holdings were destroyed when the British burned the Capitol during the War of 1812. Jefferson’s wide-ranging interests as reflected in his books decisively expanded the scope of the Library’s mission. Today, Thomas Jefferson’s Library continues to be available for the use of researchers, but it is also displayed for visitors to the Library’s exhibit halls in the Jefferson Building, and on the World Wide Web.
Read Herbert Small’s 1897 publication, Handbook of the New Library of Congress for a detailed discussion of the Jefferson Building’s architecture and ornamentation published at the time of its completion.
Charles Eliot—landscape architect, writer and theorist on landscape architecture, visionary land preservationist and regional planner, and early environmentalist—was born into a family of distinguished Bostonians in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on November 1, 1859. His father, Charles William Eliot, was a professor and later president (1869-1909) of Harvard University whose reforms reshaped both Harvard and American higher education. His mother, Ellen Peabody Eliot, taught him at a young age to draw and paint, skills that helped cultivate his understanding of landscape and later proved essential in his professional work. By the time he was twelve, one of his favorite forms of play was making elaborate plans of imaginary seaside towns.
Despite bouts of debilitating illness, young Eliot grew up living and traveling widely in America and Europe, and spending summer vacations (as he did all his life) exploring the wild beauty of Mount Desert Island, Maine. Everywhere, he immersed himself in nature: taking long walks in the countryside, making detailed, systematic notes and sketches of the landscapes and natural phenomena around him. “Wherever the family lived,” his father remembered, “Charles roamed the country roundabout, and learnt it by heart.”
By the time he graduated from Harvard University in 1882, Eliot had decided to become a landscape architect. It was still a nascent profession, lacking any formal course of study in the United States, and the horticultural studies he began at Harvard’s Bussey Institute would hardly have filled the deficit. However, the Boston area was also home to
Frederick Law Olmsted, whom Eliot rightly called “the leading man in my proposed profession”—and he invited Eliot to become his personal apprentice. No merely academic course could have served him so well. For the next three years, he worked closely with Olmsted, traveling with him to the sites of his projects—among them the Arnold Arboretum, the Back Bay Fens, and Franklin Park, in Boston; and Belle Isle Park in Detroit–and gaining an invaluable understanding of both the art and the business of landscape design.
Eliot completed his professional training with a year of travel in Great Britain and Europe (1885-86), which he spent systematically studying a great variety of designed landscapes, scenery, and the artistic tradition that depicted them in painting. Aboard the ship to Europe he also found natural beauty of a different kind. As he confided to his journal, a Miss Mary Yale Pitkin of Philadelphia was “very good to look at, and I must confess that after I was . . . introduced to her, the voyaging became much more agreeable.” Following a courtship that spanned two continents, Eliot married her in 1888.
His first independent professional project had been a modest assignment in the fall of 1885 for the owner of Virginia’s famed Natural Bridge, who hired him on Olmsted’s recommendation. Eliot described a week of “very pleasant . . . work giving immediate effects – breaking up straight edges of woods – opening vistas – clearing to bring out fine trees – and opening lines through the woods for two new roads.” Making judicious enhancements to striking scenery was a prescient start to his career—“Real landscape art,” he once wrote, “is nothing if it is not broad, simple, and conservative of natural beauty”– and upon his return from Europe, he opened his own practice in Boston, launching a decade of extraordinary creative achievement in multiple fields.
Although he had numerous private clients, Eliot’s most important endeavors were in service to the public. He was convinced, like Olmsted, that the experience of natural beauty could play an essential role in ensuring human health and happiness in an increasingly urbanized and industrialized world. Accordingly, he directed much of his professional creativity simultaneously towards the design and development of public parks, and towards the preservation of beautiful natural places, devising new kinds of private and public organizations to meet both needs. His expansive definition of his profession incorporated what we would now call environmental protection: landscape architecture is, he wrote, “the art of preserving, enhancing, or creating out-of-doors beauty, whether natural or formal.” Eliot’s place in American environmental history is therefore at least as important as his place in the history of American landscape design; he was, it has been said, “an environmentalist, long before the term had been coined.”
Importantly, too, Eliot expressed his creative insights in writing as well as design. “I have seen no such justly critical notes as yours on landscape architecture . . . for a generation past,” Olmsted told him. “You ought to make it a part of your scheme to write for the public. . . . It is a part of your professional duty to do so.” Eliot did so, publishing his ideas in influential outlets such as the journal Garden and Forest and thereby ensuring their lasting impact far beyond the physical places he shaped.
So it was that in 1890, in a letter to the editor, titled “The Waverly Oaks”, in the March 5 issue of Garden and Forest, Eliot proposed a new kind of organization dedicated to preserving and protecting for public benefit places of exceptional scenic, natural, or historic value, which would be acquired by gift or purchase and held tax-free. “If an association of this sort were once established,” he argued, “generous men and women would be ready to buy and give into its keeping . . . fine and strongly characterized works of Nature; just as others buy and give to a museum fine works of art.” The result was the creation of the world’s first land trust, the Trustees of Public Reservations. It not only fulfilled its purpose but became the model for Britain’s National Trust and a host of other organizations, including the Nature Conservancy and the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the United States. Renamed the Trustees of ReservationsExternal, it is still the largest not-for-profit conservation organization in Massachusetts today.
In 1892, Eliot proposed another important innovation: a public commission tasked with creating and managing a unified system of public parks in and around Boston. Many of these parks, he argued, should encompass the area’s remaining natural places, acquired by local government, protected from development, gently modified by designs for access and enhancement of their most appealing features, and interconnected throughout the region by a new network of roads and parkways. He found a kindred spirit in the journalist and author Sylvester Baxter, who had been contemplating similar ideas; they set forth their recommendations in A Report upon the Opportunities for Public Open Spaces in the Metropolitan District of Boston, Massachusetts, Made to the Metropolitan Park Commission. The result was the permanent establishment of the Metropolitan Park Commission (1893), the nation’s first regional parks authority and a pioneering project to preserve or restore important landscapes while integrating green spaces into the lives of millions who would otherwise have been disconnected from the natural world.
Eliot himself served as the Commission’s landscape architect, and in 1896, he prepared another seminal report,
Vegetation and Scenery in the Metropolitan Reservations of Boston, which called for including ecological knowledge in the design and management of the parks in the Metropolitan system. The Scottish-American landscape architect Ian McHarg is credited with first integrating scientific understanding of natural systems into landscape design– but he himself credited Eliot. “I have been described as the inventor of ecological planning, the incorporation of natural science within the planning process,” he wrote. “Yet Charles Eliot . . . preceded me by half a century. . . . He invented a new and vastly more comprehensive planning method than any pre-existing, but it was not emulated.” Eliot’s report, published posthumously in 1898, is his fullest exposition of this vital idea. His approach now governs the protection and management of natural places throughout the world.
By the time he wrote this report, Eliot had accepted Frederick Law Olmsted’s 1893 invitation to become a partner in the landscape architecture firm he shared with his son John Charles Olmsted. In tacit recognition that his brilliant protégé had become his peer, Olmsted renamed the firm Olmsted, Olmsted & Eliot. In the four years of its existence, Eliot and his partners undertook major projects from New England to New York, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Wisconsin. Outliving both the senior Olmsted and Eliot himself, the firm ultimately known as Olmsted Associates remained active for decades, creating an unsurpassed legacy of collective achievement in American landscape design.
In the early spring of 1897, while working to create the City of Hartford park system, Eliot contracted spinal meningitis. A few days later, on March 25, he died, leaving behind his wife and four young daughters and a life still full of promise. He was thirty-seven years old.
Three years later, in 1900, Harvard University established the nation’s first academic program in landscape architecture in Charles Eliot’s memory. Yet a different memorial may fit him more: the vital work his father, Charles W. Eliot, launched in 1901 to protect Mount Desert Island and create the foundation for Acadia National Park was done to honor him, and give his vision lasting expression in a place that he had loved.
Learn more about Charles Eliot’s life and read many of his writings in the biography his father wrote:
Charles Eliot, Landscape Architect, by Charles W. Eliot (Boston, 1902). Its record in the Library of Congress online catalog includes a link to an electronic version in the HathiTrust Digital Library.
Explore the rich correspondence between Charles Eliot and his great mentor, professional partner, and friend Frederick Law Olmsted in the online manuscript collection the Frederick Law Olmsted Papers. To find the letters they exchanged, search on the word “Correspondence” (without quotes) in the collection search box at top right; then use the drop-down menu box below the search box to sort the results by date and access materials from the years when Olmsted and Eliot knew each other (1882-1897).
Explore the work of the landscape architecture firm Olmsted, Olmsted & Eliot, Charles Eliot’s final professional home (1893-1897), in the Olmsted Associates Records online manuscript collection.