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The History of the Library of Congress James Madison Memorial Building

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Over the years, I have regularly attended dance and yoga classes at St. Mark’s Capitol Hill, which sits just east of the Adams Building. I have often heard a story about how the church vestry applied to place the building on the National Register of Historic Places to prevent the Library of Congress from tearing down the church and erecting the James Madison Memorial Building at Third and A Streets SE. I have always enjoyed this story and admired the wily and quick-witted church members for this solution to their problems. However, as with many myths, when one begins to dig into the actual history, this tale begins to fall apart.

On examination, I found St. Mark’s Church was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, two years after the foundation for the Madison Building was laid! A little more digging revealed the District of Columbia had added St. Mark’s to the D.C. Inventory of Historic Sites in 1964, and I wondered if this was the action that persuaded Congress to look elsewhere for land for the Madison Building. Curious, I began to look into the record of the history behind the construction of the building.

In 1957, Librarian of Congress L. Quincy Mumford commissioned a study to justify the construction of a third Library building. Three years later, in 1960, Pub.L. 86-469 (74 Stat. 132) directed the Architect of the Capitol (AOC) to prepare preliminary plans and estimates of the cost of a new Library of Congress building. Coincidentally, Congress had also just passed Pub. L. 86-417 (74 Stat. 37) which established the James Madison Memorial Commission (Commission). The Commission was tasked with planning and designing a permanent memorial to James Madison in Washington, D.C. In 1972, the Commission published a summary account of their work.

In this account, the Commission records that by December 1960, they had determined that the best memorial for Madison would be a library. The idea was this building would house publications and documents associated with Madison and also serve as a public monument for visitors on Madison’s role in the drafting of the U.S. Constitution. The Commission proposed that the building should be erected on Square 732, which had recently been purchased by the government: “two squares next to the Old House Office Building and across Independence Avenue from the Library of Congress.” The building was to consist of three underground levels that would house the papers of 23 presidents, with three floors above ground, the first of which was to be a memorial hall for Madison and two additional floors for scholars and researchers. The Library informed the Commission that the building as planned would only provide 24% of the space needed by the Library over the next quarter-century.

In 1962, the Senate introduced S.J.Res. 119 to authorize the AOC to construct, in square 732, a memorial to James Madison. The building would have an underground structure to house the papers of the presidents and an above-ground structure to “be in keeping with the prevailing architecture of the buildings on Capitol Hill …” The resolution proposed authorizing $39,000,000 for this project. The Senate Committee on Public Works, Subcommittee on Public Buildings and Grounds held a hearing in August 1962 on this resolution. At the hearing, Senator Proxmire testified against the project as being unnecessarily expensive and in the end, the resolution did not advance out of committee.

At the same time, the AOC and the Library were proceeding with plans for a second annex to the Library as authorized by Pub. L. 86-469. The original idea was that this annex would sit on four city squares east of the Adams Building (named the Library Annex at this time). A 1965 House Committee on Public Works, Subcommittee on Public Buildings and Grounds September hearing recorded that “the Architect of the Capitol … undertook the preparation of preliminary plans and estimates of cost for an additional Library of Congress building of two million square feet, net area, to be constructed on four squares east of the Library Annex …” However, the Annual Report of the Librarian of Congress for Fiscal Year (FY) 1961 noted that the proposal for the James Madison Memorial Library, which would house the Library’s collections of presidential papers, meant that the Library would only require two squares east of the Annex for another library building. The Librarian’s FY 1962 report reiterated this plan and stated that redrawn plans for this annex had been submitted to the Joint Committee on the Library in April 1962.

But on October 4, 1962, Rep. Widnall introduced H.J.Res. 901 authorizing the construction of a third Library of Congress building in square 732. This joint resolution proposed that the two projects should be combined:

that such building shall be designated the President James Madison Memorial Library, thus making totally unnecessary the destruction of scores of fine residences and saving at least $39,000,000 by combining the plan for a memorial to James Madison with the plan for a third building for the Library of Congress.

A week later, on October 12, 1962, Rep. Morris Udall introduced a similar joint resolution (H.J.Res. 905). Although neither of these resolutions became law, the idea of combining the two projects had taken root. Four bills (H.R. 1920, 7391, 7736, and 8272) were introduced in the House in the 88th Congress (1963-1964) and they all proposed constructing the third Library of Congress building on square 732 and naming it the President James Madison Memorial Library. The 1973 Commission Account makes clear that this change in direction was due in part to a local protest:

The site was occupied by privately owned residences many of which had been recently renovated. Naturally the owners, with considerable popular support, opposed the expropriation of their homes for more space for the Library of  Congress.

Finally, in October 1965, Congress passed Pub.L. 89-260 (79 Stat. 986) authorizing the construction of the Madison Building in square 732, and authorizing $75,000,000 for this work. Additional legislation was passed in 1969 adding funding for the plans and $15,000,000 to the construction costs. Excavation work began in 1971.

Washington aerials of downtown D.C. [Panorama – including excavation for Library of Congress Madison Building]. Halloran, Thomas, photographer. 1971. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
The building was opened to the public on May 28, 1980. And lest this seems a long time for the process from conception to final execution, the Librarian’s Annual Report for FY 1961 noted that it took a total of 26 years for the Jefferson Building to become a reality.

[Exterior view, from corner of Independence Ave. and 2nd St. Library of Congress James Madison Building, Washington, D.C.]. Highsmith, Carol, photographer. 2007. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
In an interesting final twist to my research, according to the National Register of Historic Places application, I found the original St. Mark’s church had actually occupied the land on which the Adams Building now sits: “In 1868 the mission organized as a congregation and built a small frame chapel on Beale Terrace between Second and Third Streets SE, a site now occupied by the Library of Congress Annex.”

[View down East Capitol Street from the U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C., with Carroll Row on the right]. Jarvis, J.F. ca. 1880. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Comments (6)

  1. Margaret,’Thank you a great articele,

  2. So the story I’ve heard about the Madison Building being constructed to house collections and not staff is only partially true?

    • The 1965 House Committee on Public Works, Subcommittee on Public Buildings and Grounds hearing references the Library as needing both more space for its collections as well as staff.

  3. Thanks for this fascinating history! I was just wondering why it was the James Madison Memorial Bldg. Now I know!

  4. The Madison building is a tragic lost opportunity, a building in a spectacular location that seems calculated to minimize the value of that location. The corner facing the Capitol is a vast expanse of concrete, and the recessed windows were a horrible idea. The interior is a melange of the Pentagon basement and a Holiday Inn built in 1972. The LoC is a great institution; the Madison building … houses important collections.

  5. Very interesting–thanks Margaret. I also sometimes took dance/exercise classes at St. Mark’s

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