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Clocking In

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John Flanagan's clock. Photo by Carol Highsmith. Prints and Photographs Division.
John Flanagan’s clock. Photo by Carol Highsmith. Prints and Photographs Division.

The Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building opened to the public in 1897. Hailed by a guidebook as a “gorgeous and palatial monument to its [America’s] national sympathy and appreciation of literature, science and art,” the construction of the edifice was a feat in and of itself – more than 15 years of postponements, major architectural changes and an assortment of hang-ups marked its debut to the nation.

In fact, Superintendent of Construction Bernard Green wouldn’t consider the building finally complete until Aug. 9, 1902, with the placement of the ornate clock in the Main Reading Room, according to an entry in his journal.

A focal point of the symbolic epicenter of the Library, the clock was designed and crafted by American sculptor and medalist John Flanagan (1865-1952). Flanagan accepted the commission on October 1, 1894, and Green proposed the “Flight of Time” as the subject. Neither could have imagined the clock would take more than seven years to complete.

Flanagan’s original design in May 1895 contained exact notes on materials and placement of the clock’s elements. For example, the rosettes surrounding the clock face were to be pink or purple marble with a lapis lazuli center. The hands of the clock were to be serpentine and set with precious stones. (The snake design of the hands did not, in fact, make it into the final piece.)

Flanagan's original design contained exacting notes on materials and placement. No included in the final piece were the snake hands shown in this drawing. Manuscript Division.
Flanagan’s original design contained exacting notes on materials and placement. Not included in the final piece were the snake hands shown in this drawing. Manuscript Division.

Aside from the dial structure, Flanagan was committed to incorporating mostly sculptural elements to the clock, emphasizing not only time but also its relation to knowledge. Symbolic elements included seated bronze figures on each side of the dial representing study (“Sitting Students”), the “Flight of Time” above the dial featuring Father Time and attendant seasons, a mosaic back piece with signs of the zodiac and a circular panel below the dial with a bas-relief of the “Swift Runners” who “keep the light of knowledge circulating.”

Flanagan continued to revise his sketches and his work dragged on – so much so that Green threatened to cancel the commission if the clock was not complete and in place by Jan. 1, 1897. Flanagan wrote to Green saying he was working as fast as he and his assistants could “push it.” He assured the superintendent that the mosaic with zodiac signs and dial structure would be ready but the larger bronze sculptural elements would take more time.

John Flanagan. Prints and Photographs Division.
John Flanagan. Prints and Photographs Division.

By April 20, 1897, the clock’s mosaic background and dial structure were put in place in the Main Reading Room. It would take another year for the “Sitting Students” and “Swift Runners” to arrive and another two-and-a-half years for the “Flight of Time” to be finished and delivered.

In late July 1902, Green wrote in his Journal of Operations, “Having been made very wide with spreading eagle wings and so high as to overlap the architrave, and being about 1600 lbs. weight the job is an extremely difficult one,” documenting the placement of the “Flight of Time” sculptural element. Over the next few weeks, Flanagan was on hand to supervise the installation, and, according to Green, was “nosing about” and fussing over various details regarding his creation.

Flanagan also designed the statue of Commerce, which can be found in the Main Reading Room as well.

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.”

Searching the Library’s Prints and Photographs Online Catalog for “Library of Congress” brings forth numerous images of the construction of the Jefferson Building and its architectural drawings, as well as vivid color photographs of the Library’s Capitol Hill campus and buildings interiors.

Comments (2)

  1. Fascinating, deep, symbolical significance of this historic room.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing some background about Flanagan’s clock and the symbolism that goes along with it. I’ve had trouble finding as much, even in books published specifically about the art and architecture of the Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Building. This information was great!

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