It is rather hard to believe that at one time some of the decorative murals that adorn every nook and cranny of the Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building weren’t even known to be there. In the decades after it opened in 1897, the building became increasingly overcrowded with growing staff and collections. By the 1970s, the Jefferson’s decorated spaces were obscured with partitions and dropped ceilings.
In the 1980s, the Architect of the Capitol (AOC) began major renovations to restore the splendor of the Jefferson Building for the American people. According to the AOC’s Barbara Wolanin, who was in charge of the murals restoration during the renovation, the original artists copyrighted their work and, that, coupled with historic photographs of the murals and construction records and letters in the Library’s Manuscript Division, helped AOC’s decorative painters and fine art conservators bring the murals back to life. You can read more about the project in this article from the December 1997 issue of the Library of Congress Bulletin.
“The Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, remains, since its opening in 1897, the most elaborately embellished public building in the United States. It symbolizes and celebrates American achievements and values at the end of the 19th century in an elaborate iconographic program where the architecture, painting, sculpture and decorations work together almost seamlessly, a triumph of what we now call the “American Renaissance,” said C. Ford Peatross, founding director of the Center for Architecture, Design & Engineering in the Library’s Prints & Photographs Division. “The murals were executed by a number of artists, some of them the finest of the time, and they are a critical tool in conveying the Jefferson Building’s intended messages. Not only do the murals inform the increasing numbers of people who visit the Library of Congress, both in person and online, but their glowing colors and beautiful compositions provide a truly joyous experience. They are a public treasure that we must protect and preserve.”
Even today, AOC craftsmen continue their work in caring for the ornate walls of the Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building. Go behind the scenes in this video, produced by the AOC, with one of their decorative painters, Dean Kalomas, to see how they maintain the artistry of the building.
Make sure to check out the Architect of the Capitol YouTube channel to watch videos and learn more.
You can take a virtual tour of many of the Library’s spaces, including several of its most decorative in the Jefferson Building. For more information on the history of the Library of Congress and its buildings, see “Jefferson’s Legacy: A Brief History of the Library of Congress” and “On These Walls: Inscriptions and Quotations in the Buildings of the Library of Congress.”