The morning of Nov. 1, 1897, dawned warmish and wet in Washington, D.C. — heavy rains were predicted through the evening. But the gray skies failed to dampen the spirits of readers anticipating a long-awaited event: the opening of the new and reportedly fabulous Library of Congress reading room.
When a watchman began allowing visitors inside at 9 a.m., an achievement a quarter century in the making came to pass: The U.S. had a national library set to rival any other, both in splendor and in function.
This November, the Library is celebrating the 125th anniversary of that milestone.
The road toward it had more than a few twists and turns, to put it mildly. But, in the end, it led to a stunning monument to America’s turn-of-the-20th-century ambitions and creative ingenuity.
As those first readers filed into the building that rainy Nov. 1, they began to grasp why popular magazines had been writing about the wonders of the new structure for months. They saw the Library’s granite exterior and imposing size; the flame of learning atop a brilliant 23-carat-gold-plated dome; and some of the artwork and sculpture that left observers breathless.
“In construction, in accommodations, in suitability to intended uses, and in artistic luxury of decoration,” the Washington Post reported, “there is no building that will compare with it in this country and very few in any other country.”
The accolades went on, no doubt deeply gratifying to one man in particular: Ainsworth Rand Spofford, the valiant Librarian of Congress from 1865 to 1897, whose vision and persistence brought the new facility into being.
From the moment the former Cincinnati bookseller and journalist joined the Library’s staff of six in 1861, he saw its potential to grow into an institution on a level with national libraries of Europe — even though, at the time, it sat within the U.S. Capitol and served as a reference library for Congress.
After President Abraham Lincoln appointed Spofford Librarian of Congress on Dec. 31, 1864, he quickly gained congressional approval for several expansions. When, following a tireless campaign by Spofford, Congress revised the Copyright Act in 1870, the Library’s future as a national institution took a leap forward.
The new law centralized copyright registration and deposit activities at the Library, dramatically increasing the number of copyrighted U.S. works set to flow in — books, maps, prints, music. Spofford needed more space.
In his 1872 annual report to Congress, he advocated for a new building. He envisioned a domed circular reading room like that of the British Museum, with books arranged in alcoves “rising tier above tier” around its circumference.
The Library would continue to support Congress, of course, but it also would serve the public and have ample room for collections and exhibits.
“In every country of where civilization has attained a high rank, there should be at least one great library, universal in its range,” Spofford wrote, referencing France’s Bibliothèque nationale and the British Museum.
The capital’s political climate favored Spofford’s expansive vision. “It was a time when America was feeling its oats,” Library historian John Y. Cole says. “The Civil War was over. Washington, D.C., was growing. Spofford took full advantage of the situation to promote his national library idea.”
Congress funded a design competition for a new building in 1873, and the Washington, D.C., firm of John L. Smithmeyer and Paul J. Pelz won the $1,500 first prize with an Italian Renaissance design that included a circular reading room.
Hopes were high that construction would soon follow. Alas, it was not to be.
Just a year later, Congress reopened the design competition when some members wanted an even grander structure. That move set off more than a decade of squabbling by committees and commissions — revisiting whether to construct a new building, arguing about its location, debating its style.
Ironically, after all that, Smithmeyer and Pelz won again with a more ornate 1885 version of their Italian Renaissance design. In 1886, Congress authorized construction of a new building across from the Capitol, yet the controversies continued.
Smithmeyer, appointed project architect, became embroiled in a dispute about cement for the foundation, leading to delays and congressional hearings, followed by his dismissal. The humiliation devastated him — he was later found with pistol in hand inside the Library, apparently planning to take his own life. (He didn’t.)
The troubled project got back on track when Congress appointed Brig. Gen. Thomas Lincoln Casey, chief of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Bernard Richardson Green, a Harvard-educated civil engineer. The pair’s reputation preceded them: They had successfully collaborated to construct the Washington Monument and, more recently, the lavishly decorated State, War and Navy Building.
“Their momentum and nationalism carried the day,” Cole says.
Soon, Casey submitted a plan for an even bigger structure, and Congress approved around $6.5 million to construct it. Pelz designed the larger building, retaining the general features of his and Smithmeyer’s Italian Renaissance design, and he created sketches for the interior. But then he, too, lost his job after yet more infighting. Neither he nor Smithmeyer were ever fully compensated.
When it became clear Casey and Green would complete the building for less than what Congress appropriated, more money became available for interior embellishment.
“Casey and Green seized the opportunity and turned an already remarkable building into a cultural monument,” Cole says.
Casey’s son, Edward Pearce Casey, a trained architect, succeeded Pelz in 1892 and oversaw a program of majestic interior decoration that used tiles, mosaics, rosettes and columns to set off scores of sculptures and paintings. For guidance, Casey drew on the example of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
In fact, most of the more than 40 American painters and sculptors commissioned to contribute to the Library’s interior were involved in some way with the exposition, and many repeated idealistic themes from it. One of them, Edwin H. Blashfield, painted “The Evolution of Civilization” in the collar of the circular reading room Spofford had so desired. The mural is among the building’s most famous artworks.
It depicts 12 historical cultures and eras that contributed to Western civilization, starting with Egypt and ending with America. In the dome above, a painted figure lifts a veil of ignorance, signaling the nation’s intellectual progress.
Form did not, however, crowd out function. The new Library was one of the first public buildings in Washington, D.C., equipped with electricity. And Green himself designed its steel bookstacks, nine tiers high and serviced by the first efficient library pneumatic tube and conveyor system in America.
The tubes carried books back and forth between the reading room and each level of the stacks, while one tube each whisked books to and from the Librarian’s office and the Capitol.
“The book-carrying apparatus is a marvel of ingenuity,” one observer reported.
Even such a wonder, however, could not produce the first book requested on Nov. 1, 1897, about three minutes after the reading room opened. “Roger Williams’ Year Book” was not on the shelf, having just been published. Fortunately, the second book asked for, Martha Lamb’s “History of the City of New York,” was available.
In the 125 years since that rainy day, elements of the grand building have evolved. Copper replaced the dome’s gold plating in the 1930s. In 1980, the no-longer-new structure, by then one of three Library of Congress buildings, was renamed for Thomas Jefferson.
Then, over a dozen years in the 1980s and 1990s, a major repair and renovation program restored the splendor of artwork and architecture obscured by decades of wear and tear, enabling people today to understand the awe of early witnesses.
“All good Americans should hope to visit the new Congressional Library before they die,” one advised in 1898. “It is one of the world’s wonders, well worth a trip across a continent to view.”
Based on the millions who visit the Library each year now, many Americans still share that view.
The very first time I set foot in the wondrous Reading Room of the Library of Congress, I was 8 yrs old and a budding bibliophile. That first building of the Library of Congress was not yet called the Jefferson Building. Five decades later, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington brought me there after our lunch on the 6th Floor of the Madison Bldg. I am always in awe whenever I’m in Library of Congress, especially in the Jefferson building’s stunning Reading Room!