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A photo of the wooden columned structure that houses the Kluge Center.
The Mahogany Colonnade in the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress. Photo by Travis Hensley, 2014.

The Kluge Center: The History of its Space

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This is a guest post by Bela Kellogg. Kellogg is a 2023 Kluge Center summer intern, where she worked with Writer-Editor Andrew Breiner and Kluge Fellow Samira Spatzek. She is currently pursuing a BA in English and history of art from the University of Michigan. In addition to being a member of the La Jolla Historical Society’s Historic Preservation Committee, Bela is a coxswain for the Michigan Men’s Rowing Team and works for The Michigan Daily as a copy editor and daily arts writer. 

On October 5th, 2000, the Library of Congress’ bicentennial year, John W. Kluge, Metromedia’s former president, philanthropist, and chairman of the Madison Council, gifted the Library $60 million to fund the establishment of the John W. Kluge Center and the John W. Kluge Prize for Achievement in the Study of Humanity. While the Library had sporadically welcomed scholars and distinguished consultants throughout its history, the Library had not yet established a long-term program of research in residence. With the largest monetary gift in the Library’s 200-year history, Kluge changed that.

Before the Kluge Center came into existence, various departments of the Library occupied the north curtain of the Jefferson Building’s first floor. The Catalog Division, for example, was the first office to occupy this space in 1897. In 1899, the Catalog Division moved out, and the following year, the Maps and Charts division moved in. Philip Lee Phillips, the inaugural chief of the Maps and Charts Division, is the namesake of fellowship that promotes research in geography and cartography. During World War I, Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam headed the American Library Association’s Library War Service, which was temporarily headquartered in the northwest pavilion of the Jefferson Building’s first floor. But apart from this brief occupancy, the maps and charts division remained in the north curtain and northwest pavilion—a space they dubbed the “Hall of Maps and Charts”— until 1953 when the size of its collection outgrew the limited space the Jefferson Building could offer.


An old black-and-white photo shows rows of desks and people working at them.
Division of Maps and Charts, Levin C. Handy, ca. 1897-1910. 


The space that was freed up by this move was assigned to the Air Information Division, where they remained until 1961. The same year, the north curtain was renovated for its hodgepodge of new occupants, including parts of the Office of the Secretary, the Near Eastern and North Africa Division of the Law Library, and the Bibliography and International Organization sections of the General Reference and Bibliography Division.

After this point, it’s difficult to trace the occupancy of the first floor’s north curtain because of severe overcrowding problems the Library faced at the time. Under the command of L. Quincy Mumford, Librarian of Congress from 1954 to 1974, the Library not only tripled its personnel from 1,564 to 4,250 employees but also doubled the size of its collections from 33 million to 74 million items. Despite initiating plans for a third building as early as 1957, the Madison Building wouldn’t be completed for another 23 years. In the wake of the Library’s rapid growth during this time, it entered a period of severe overcrowding in its original two buildings.

To temporarily alleviate overcrowding, various divisions of the Library were relocated to an array of rental spaces starting in 1964. By 1970, the Library occupied 13 offsite buildings across DC, Maryland, Virginia, and Ohio, totaling over 500,000 square feet of rental space. With constant relocation efforts made to alleviate overcrowding, it was like a game of musical chairs. To make matters worse, during the 1960s, the Jefferson Building underwent a series of renovations to install new heating, ventilating, and cooling systems throughout the building. The installation of these systems demanded space that the Library could hardly afford to give. An annual report from 1963 asserted that, as a result, the Library had “played a glorified version of the old carnival magician’s trick: under which shell is the pea. Guessing which office door hid which office became a favorite game as divisions moved into temporary quarters partitioned off in exhibit halls and corridors to make room for workers with blowtorches, jackhammers, and crowbars.”

In 1982, the Library retained the architect Arthur Cotton Moore to embark on a campaign to renovate and restore the Jefferson and Adams buildings. In the 1980s, Moore developed a signature style, which he called “Industrial Baroque.” This style underlay Moore’s plans for massive mahogany colonnades that would soon occupy the north and northeast curtains of the Jefferson Building’s first floor. The plans for these colonnades even earned Moore an award from the American Institute of Architecture Design. “Conceived and designed like large pieces of furniture in dark mahogany,” Moore said, “these mini-buildings occupy about half the space in the room and are constructed of hollow members permitting an infinite variety of writing and access for 21st century information delivery systems. Like furniture, they also could be replaced without compromising our carefully restored historic interior shell. The architectural design refers abstractly to both famous precedents in European libraries and to the Baroque design of the building.”


A photo of the wooden columned structure that houses the Kluge Center.
The Mahogany Colonnade in the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress. Photo by Travis Hensley, 2014.


Installed in 1989, these colonnade structures were constructed in an effort to “reactivate the notion of a set of subordinate reading rooms occupying an arch of the grand halls (curtains), providing improved access to a specific branch of knowledge.” The colonnades looked a little different than they do today: Moore stated that when visitors walked into these newly balconied spaces, they would see “1) an open, airy forecourt, where natural light from tall windows illuminates researchers working at new mahogany tables wired for brass lamps and modern laptops; 2) a massive colonnade in the back half of the long room, where division staff work in mahogany paneled offices on two levels; and 3) the handiwork of the Library’s interior design staff, who selected the elegant mahogany furnishings that stand out against the soft colors of the carpet, walls, and ceiling.” After the conception of the Kluge Center, the north curtain’s colonnade was expanded to accommodate the needs of a collaborative research center.

Today, the Kluge Center occupies the first floor of the Jefferson Building’s northern and northeast curtain. Officially opened on July 17, 2002, the Kluge Center consists of a mahogany colonnade with two levels. The lower level is home to 13 offices for distinguished chairs and visiting scholars, while 26 carrels are located on the upper level for postdoctoral fellows.

In 2005, the Kluge Center underwent expansion after reaching an agreement with the British Research Council to offer extended periods of residence to dissertation fellows studying at British universities. To accommodate 24 new fellows participating in the United Kingdom’s Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Gatsby Foundation donated funds to outfit the adjoining northwest curtain with research carrels. Opened on December 1, 2006, the facility is known as the David and Susan Sainsbury Center, and fellows from the Kluge Center occupy the colonnade’s upper level.

At the Kluge Center, scholars are neither segregated by subject matter nor situated in discipline-specific departments, unlike at universities. Instead, the Kluge Center’s design was purposefully created to facilitate encounters and interactions between scholars from different disciplines and career paths, thereby fostering a fluid and lively spirit of inquiry.

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