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Banner image promotion for a Night at the Adams Building . The lettering is filled in to look like a starry night sky and one of the Adams' building owls is also pictured.
Banner image promotion for a Night at the Adams Building

Celebrating 85 years of the John Adams Building

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An edited version of this post was published in the Library’s staff newsletter, “The Gazette,” on April 5, 2024

The year was 1939. Packard became the first automobile company to offer air conditioning, starting with their 1940 models. Pan-American Airways’ Yankee Clipper made its first transatlantic passenger flight.  Professor John Vincent Atanasoff and graduate student Clifford Berry, at Iowa State College, developed a prototype of the first digital computer. Technology company Hewlett-Packard was founded in a garage in Palo Alto, CA. And, in September 1939, Germany invaded Poland, touching off a world war in Europe, forever changing the world.

exterior view of the Adams building and street
Exterior view of the Adams Building from the roof of the Jefferson Building, ca 1940s. Theodor Horydczak Collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

For the Library of Congress, 1939 was notable for another event: the opening of the Library’s John Adams Building, which was originally called “The Annex.” That name stuck until 1976, when President Ford signed a law naming the building the “Thomas Jefferson Building.” This name, though, was short lived and in 1980 the building was renamed for the second U.S. president, John Adams. The building –    boasting elevators, improved fireproofing, pneumatic tubes, and air conditioning – opened for business 85 years ago on January 3, 1939, with the public reading rooms opening on April 5, 1939.

In celebration of the 85th anniversary of the Adams Building opening to the public, the Science and Business Reading Room, on the fifth floor of Adams, is holding an open house on April 18, 2024, from 5:00- 8:00 p.m. “Live! At the Library: A Night at the Adams” invites guests to explore the reading room with tours, curated displays, and a scavenger hunt. Get Tickets [Note: Should tickets be sold out, an additional batch of tickets will be released on the day of the open house] Request ADA accommodations five business days in advance at (202) 707-6362 or [email protected].

A photograph of stone steps leading up to the southside entrance of the Adams Building. Art Deco Owls and ornamental lamps decorate the walkway.
The south side entrance to the John Adams Building. Theodor Horydczak, photographer, ca. 1940s. Theodor Horydczak Collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

The building which would become the John Adams Building was first proposed to Congress in 1928. Funding was appropriated in 1930 and 1935, and David Lynn, the then Architect of the Capitol, commissioned a design from the architectural firm of Pierson & Wilson. The result was an effective and elegant building that today complements its next-door neighbor, the Folger Shakespeare Library. The building incorporates traditional Beaux Arts architectural styles (e.g. Italian Renaissance and classical Greco- Roman styles) along with fashionable Art Deco designs. This mixture of styles was popular in the U.S. in the 1920s and 1930s and is today referred to as “Greco Deco,” an architectural term coined by art historian James M. Goode.

Photograph of the marble found on a wall at the fifth-floor elevator lobby. Ashlar (top) is Light and Dark Rose from St. Genevieve, MO, wainscot Phantasia Roseal from Knoxville TN and base Westfield Green from Westfield, MA.
Marble found in the fifth-floor elevator lobby. The ashlar (top) is Light and Dark Rose from St. Genevieve, MO; the wainscot is Phantasia Roseal from Knoxville TN and the base is Westfield Green from Westfield, MA. Library of Congress John Adams Building, Washington, D.C. Photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, 2007.

Beautifully selected marble, stone, and other materials from around the country are featured in the John Adams Building. The exterior is faced in Georgia White Marble with a skirt of North Carolina Pink Granite around the base. Inside, St. Genevieve Rose Marble from Missouri, Travertine limestone from Montana, and Cardiff Green Marble from Maryland are some of the materials which welcome visitors. Underfoot are beautifully crafted terrazzo and mosaic floors, produced by the National Mosaic Company of Washington, DC, the same company responsible for the floors of many of DC’s federal buildings.

Photograph of a detail of the Adams Building terrazzo and mosaic floor
Terrazzo and mosiac floor detail. Library of Congress, John Adams Building, Washington, D.C. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith (2007).

Advertisements and articles in Federal Architect and Modern Plastics magazines from the late 1930s touted the building’s architecture and design achievements, as the Adams building exhibits examples of industrial arts and materials science considered exceptional at the time. Tiles made of Vitrolite, a shiny structural pigmented glass popular in Art Deco designs, cover stairwell walls and other surfaces. Aluminum, bronze and nickel are used in metalwork details throughout the building. The use of Formica, in particular, is noteworthy, as the building won awards for it. Formica, a laminated plastic material used in decorative applications, features in the reading room green wall paneling and the “RealWood” study tables.

Interior details of the Adams Building’s South Reading Room, including green Formica wall covering, aluminum and other metal details and plant motif wall carvings. Photograph by Carol M. Highsmith. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

At its core, the Adams building contains 12 tiers of bookstacks extending from the basement to the fourth floor. Each tier covers 13 acres of space and together they can hold up to 10 million books. Staff offices and workspaces encircle the bookstacks and topping it all off, two great reading rooms occupy the fifth floor, with high elevated ceilings, murals by American artist Ezra Winter and art deco designs by sculptor Lee Lawrie. Winter was commissioned to paint murals in the South Reading Room, the current home of the Science and Business Reading Room, as a tribute to Thomas Jefferson. Panels highlight individuals from Colonial and Federalist America and illustrate the quotes from Jefferson’s letters on themes of freedom, labor, education, and democratic government. In a lunette above the book services desk, a stately dedication depicts Thomas Jefferson, in front of his Monticello residence. This space was fondly known as the Thomas Jefferson Reading Room for many years. In the North Reading Room, which is currently a collection management space accessible only to staff, Winter painted a colorful and animated procession of characters from Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.” The east and west walls depict the Pilgrims as they are introduced in the Prologue with the west wall also showcasing a cameo of Chaucer himself. The north clock wall illustrates the opening lines of the Prologue while the south wall lunette, inspired by the prologue of “Franklin’s Tale” shows three musicians.

 Mural by Ezra Winter illustrating the characters in the Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. According to the inscription, this mural on the west wall shows (left to right): "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."
North Reading Room, west wall. Mural by Ezra Winter illustrating the characters in the Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. Library of Congress John Adams Building, Carol M. Highsmith, photographer, 2007. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Architectural sculptor, Lee Lawrie, was a notable artist of the time. His works included the sculpture, Atlas, at Rockefeller Center;  the statue, The Sower, and other sculptures decorating the Nebraska State Capitol; the Los Angeles Central Library’s Goodhue Building; and many other works. Lawrie adorned the Adams building with an array of modernist details and deco designs. Ground floor bronze doors feature sculptural reliefs of figures symbolizing the history of the written word and exterior friezes around the building provided stories of antiquity and ancient civilizations. Everywhere visitors might look, they will encounter Lawrie’s artistic touch, from beautiful grille work on the doors welcoming guests to the reading room to ornamental designs on the 5th floor elevators taking staff to the bookstacks. Plant motifs in metal and stone appear in elevator lobbies and on doors, water fountains, walls and other unexpected surfaces. A parliament of owls, designed with geometric shapes and dressed in nickel, aluminum or stone, nest about the reading room and on the exterior of the building.

Art Deco plant motif detail of various metals by Lee Lawrie above elevator in lobby of Adams Building 2nd St. entrance. Stone in the background is Travertine from Montana
Art Deco plant motif by Lee Lawrie with details in various metals, above the elevator in the lobby of the Adams Building 2nd St. entrance. Stone in the background is Travertine from Montana. Carol M. Highsmith, photographer. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

The intricate and highly symbolic design and wealth of incorporated detail make the John Adams building a worthy companion to its older sibling, the now-Jefferson Building, but there is much more to discover and celebrate about the Adams Building and its history.

Learn more about the history of the Adams Building from the StoryMap, “A Handsome Box: The Adams Building.”

Read more blog posts about the John Adams Building.

Questions about the open house can be directed to the Business Section’s Ask a Librarian service.

If you are interested in more Business and Science topics, then subscribe to Inside Adams — it’s free!”

Comments

  1. Excellent article, Jennifer. Give the Adams its due!

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