The Library’s Jefferson Building: 125 Years Old and Loving It

Design for Library’s Jefferson Building, between . Smithmeyer and Pelz. Prints and Photographs Division.

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.

Wide angle color photo of the Jefferson Building beneath a brilliant blue sky

The Jefferson Building on a recent late afternoon. Photo: Shawn Miller.

“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.

Ainsworth Rand Spofford. between 1870-1880. Photo: Brady-Handy. Prints and Photographs Division.

“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.

Three workers atop an arch, high on the Library building, as a cran lowers a massive stone block into place. The Capitol Hill neighborhood is visible in the background.

Workers erect the southwest clerestory arch of the Library’s new building in 1892. Prints and Photographs Division.

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.

The Main Reading Room today. Photo: Shawn Miller.

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.


Indigenous Cultures at the Library: Kislak Family Foundation Gives $10 Million for New Gallery

The Kislak Family Foundation is donating $10 million to create a new exhibition at the Library that will share a fuller history of the early Americas, featuring the Jay I. Kislak Collection of artifacts, paintings, maps, rare books and documents, the Library announced today. The new Kislak Gallery will be part of a reimagined visitor […]

A New Vision for an Inspiring Location

Plans for a new renovation to the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building, designed to offer more members of the public access to the Library’s inspiring architecture and comprehensive collections, include an oculus; a circular glass window that will allow visitors to look up to the dome from the orientation center below the Main Reading Room, where visitors will begin their Library journey.

Dolly Parton: “The Library That Dolly Built”

Dolly Parton’s documentary about her world-class book giveaway program for young children debuted on Facebook this week, highlighting her Imagination Library’s 25-year history and its ties to the Library. “The Library that Dolly Built” chronicles how Parton, the child of impoverished parents (her father was illiterate) in rural Tennessee, built an international program that has […]

“Caged Bird” Inspired by the Library of Congress

Poet Maya Angelou’s debut memoir, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” is her most famous work. The coming-of-age story has influenced writers and touched millions of people. Yet its title is not original to Angelou: She borrowed it from a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar that he composed, at least in part, in response […]

This Day in History: Happy Birthday LOC!

Today, the Library of Congress celebrates its 218th birthday. On April 24, 1800, President John Adams approved an appropriation of $5,000 for the purchase of “such books as may be necessary for the use of [C]ongress.” The first books purchased were ordered from London and arrived in 1801. The collection of 740 volumes and three […]