The Library of Congress , Washington DC


Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Building
Photo courtesy of the DC SHPO

In 1800, Congress voted to buy books and create a library for its use. From 1800 to 1814, the Library of Congress was housed in various spaces in the Capitol until it was burned by the British in the War of 1812. Congress then purchased Thomas Jefferson’s personal library collection in 1815 at cost, to replace their losses. Since the Blodget’s Hotel at 7th and E Streets was serving as the temporary Capitol, a room on its third floor housed the new collection of the Library. In 1818, however, funds were appropriated to move the Library back to the Capitol. When the new quarters in the Capitol’s north wing proved inadequate, Charles Bulfinch, the Capitol’s architect, developed plans for a spacious Library room in the center of the west front of the Capitol. On Christmas Eve, 1851, a disastrous fire in the Library destroyed approximately 35,000 of 55,000 volumes. A new plan was then approved to repair and enlarge the Library using fireproof materials throughout. The restored Library opened in 1853, but by 1865, it was apparent that due to the vast growth of its collections, the Library of Congress needed a separate building.

Authorized in 1886, the first separate Library of Congress building, the Jefferson Building, was opened to the public in 1897. The Library’s design was based on the Paris Opera House and was unparalleled in national achievement. Its 23-carat gold-plated dome capped the “largest, costliest, and safest” library building in the world. More than 40 painters and sculptors decorated the facade and interior making it surpass European libraries in its devotion to classical culture. John L. Smithmeyer and Paul J. Pelz submitted the plans chosen by Congress for the design. Both architects were dismissed and the building’s completion came under Gen. Edward Pearce Casey and civil engineer Bernard R. Green. The building stands today as a unique blend of art and architecture and is recognized as a national treasure.

In 1928, Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam urged Congress to purchase the land directly east of the Library’s Main Building (the Jefferson Building) for the construction of an Annex Building. In 1930, money was appropriated for its construction as well as a tunnel connecting it to the main building. The simple classical structure with Art Deco detailing was intended as a functional book stack with work spaces. It was designed by Pierson & Wilson, a Washington architectural firm, with Alexander Buel Trowbridge as consulting architect. The building was opened to the public on January 3, 1939. Now known as the Adams Building after John Adams, who approved the law establishing the Library of Congress, the impressive structure has the potential to house 10,000,000 books.

Today’s James Madison Memorial Building was authorized in 1965, but not completed until 1981. President Ronald Reagan participated in the dedication ceremonies. The building serves as the Library’s third major building, and as a memorial to James Madison, the “father” of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, as well as the fourth president of the United States. The Madison Building was designed by the firm of DeWitt, Poor and Shelton Associated Architects. It is one of the three largest public buildings in the Washington, DC, area and contains 2,100,000 square feet. The building houses administrative offices, the Congressional Research Service, the Law Library, the Office of the Librarian as well as the Copyright Office and eight reading rooms.

Now the Library of Congress is one of the largest and best-equipped libraries in the world. It houses approximately 90 million items on 540 miles of shelves. The Library has far exceeded its mission to make its resources available and useful to the United States Congress and the American people as well as to sustain and preserve a universal collection of knowledge and creativity for future generations. The Library of Congress glorifies the American contribution to world knowledge, and the buildings stand as monuments to the people who furthered this cause.

The Thomas Jefferson Building is located at Independence Ave. and 1st St., SE. Visitor hours are between 10:00 am and 5:30 pm Monday through Saturday. The John Adams Building is at 3rd St. and Independence Ave., SE. Visitor hours are 8:30 am to 9:30 pm on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays and 8:30 am to 5:30 pm on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. The James Madison Building is located on Independence Ave. between 1st and 2nd Sts., SE. Visitor hours are from 8:30 am to 9:30 pm Monday through Friday and 8:30 am to 6:30 pm on Saturday. All Library of Congress buildings are closed to the public on Sundays and federal holidays. For more information, please call 202/707-8000. metro stop: Capitol South