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Color closeup of an intricate art deco design
Detail from above an elevator in the Adams Building. Photo: Carol M. Highsmith

The Adams Building Turns 85!

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-This is a guest post by Jennifer Harbster, head of the science section.

The year was 1939. Pan American Airways’ Yankee Clipper made its first transatlantic passenger flight. The technology company Hewlett-Packard was founded in a garage in Palo Alto, California. Scientists at Iowa State College developed the prototype for the first digital computer.

And at the Library, the John Adams Building  opened just three days into the year. Boasting elevators, pneumatic tubes and air-conditioning, the building was available to researchers in April.

To celebrate this 85th anniversary, the Science and Business Reading Room is hosting a “A Night at the Adams,” on April 18 from 5 to 8 p.m. The event, which is sold out, will feature tours of the stunning reading room, curated displays and a scavenger hunt.

Photo of the front facade of the Adams Building on a sunny day.
The Adams Building. Photo: Shawn Miller

The building was proposed to Congress in 1928. It was orginally known as “the Annex” to the adjacent Thomas Jefferson Buildling and funding was appropriated in 1930 and 1935. David Lynn, then the Architect of the Capitol, commissioned a design from the architectural firm of Pierson and Wilson. The result was an elegant building that today complements its next-door neighbor, the Folger Shakespeare Library. It was renamed for the second U.S. president in 1980.

The Adams incorporates traditional beaux arts architectural styles, including Italian Renaissance and classical Greco-Roman details, 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.

Beautifully selected marble, stone and other materials from around the country grace the building at every turn. 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 featured.

Underfoot are beautifully crafted terrazzo and mosaic floors produced by the National Mosaic Company of Washington, D.C., the same company responsible for the floors of many of the city’s federal buildings.

Advertisements and articles in the Federal Architect and Modern Plastics magazines from the late 1930s tout the Adams’ architecture and design achievements — the building incorporates 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.

The use of Formica, in particular, is noteworthy. The building won awards for it. A laminated plastic material used in decorative applications, Formica features in the reading room’s green wall paneling and study tables.

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; together, the tiers can hold up to 10 million books. Staff offices and workspaces encircle the bookstacks.

Topping everything off on the fifth floor are two high-ceilinged reading rooms adorned with murals by artist Ezra Winter and art deco designs by sculptor Lee Lawrie.

Winters was commissioned to paint murals in the South Reading Room, the current home of the Science and Business Reading Room, as a tribute to Jefferson — the space was known fondly as the Jefferson Reading Room for many years.

Panels highlight individuals from Colonial and Federalist America and quotations from Jefferson’s letters on the themes of freedom, labor, education and democratic government. In a lunette above the book services desk, a stately dedication depicts Jefferson in front of his Monticello, Virginia, residence.

In the North Reading Room, now a collection management space accessible only to staff members, Winters painted a colorful and animated procession of characters from Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.”

The east and west walls depict 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 “The Franklin’s Tale,” shows three musicians.

 South entrance (Independence Avenue), sculpted stairway with stylized owl and elaborate lamp.pol
A sculpted owl gazes out from the Adams Building entrance on Independence Avenue. Photo: Carol M. Highsmith.

Architectural sculptor Lee Lawrie, a notable artist of the time, adorned the Adams Building with an array of modernist details and deco designs. His standout works include the sculpture “Atlas” at Rockefeller Center in New York City and “The Sower” and other sculptures decorating the Nebraska state capitol in Lincoln.

Ground-floor bronze doors in the Adams Building feature sculptural reliefs Lawrie designed to symbolize the history of the written word, and exterior friezes tell stories from antiquity and ancient civilizations.

Elsewhere, Lawrie’s artistic touch is visible in beautiful grille work on reading room doors and on elevator doors that take staff members to the stacks. His plant motifs in metal and stone appear in elevator lobbies and on doors, water fountains and walls. Owls he designed with geometric shapes and dressed in nickel, aluminum or stone, nest about the reading room and on the exterior of the building.

The intricate and highly symbolic designs and wealth of detail Winter and Lawrie incorporated into the Adams Building —  along with the artistry of many others — make the Adams much more than an annex: It is truly a worthy a companion to its older sibling, the Jefferson Building.

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Comments (5)

  1. Would have loved to see more pictures of the interior. Descriptions sound incredible.

  2. Is there a waitlist for “A Night at the Adams?

    Thank you,
    Althea Hayden

    • Hi there,

      There is no wait list, but there WILL be more tickets released the day-of, so pls check back then!

  3. A building of great dignity and beauty (and a wonderful space in which to work, as I can attest!), the Adams Building is truly one of the gems of the federal city. It lacks the Jefferson Building’s intricate opulence, but it, too, should be a destination not only for researchers but for anyone who appreciates superb architecture. And its hidden surprises– such as the owls!– are an endless delight. Thanks for celebrating this grand place!

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