Magazine article Insight on the News

Library of Congress Celebrates Its Return to Original Splendor

Magazine article Insight on the News

Library of Congress Celebrates Its Return to Original Splendor

Article excerpt

The 100-year-old Jefferson Building represents a collaborative effort between architecture and art. Never before had a team of prominent artists coordinated their talents during the construction of a historic public building of such symbolic importance. A 17-year restoration project has returned the structure to its original glory.

When restorers were choosing the shade of yellow for the Pavilion of Arts and Sciences at the Library of Congress, they didn't study color strips at the hardware store. A technologist used an electron microscope to analyze paint flakes scraped from the walls. Even so, they didn't quite get it right.

"It was way too yellow," says Kevin Hildebrand, one of three project architects from the Office of the Architect of the Capitol involved in the restoration of the Thomas Jefferson Building, the oldest of three housing the library. "It was too Florida. It wasn't until we took a light sconce off the wall that we found a sample of the original, which was a much more golden, mustard color.... Then it all came together -- the walls the gold tones in the floor mosaic, the ceiling painting.... It all worked."

Such exhaustive research and attention to detail characterize every aspect of the renovation of the historic building, which reopened in May after 17 years of work and the contributions of more consultants than there are Capitol Hill lawmakers.

The Library of Congress was founded in 1800. President Jefferson was a keen supporter of what he called "the Library of the United States," initially located in the Capitol. Much of the original collection was burned by the British during the War of 1812. Jefferson, by then retired and living at Monticello, again became the library's benefactor by donating much of his personal library to form the core of the new collection.

Eventually, however, the library outgrew its space at the Capitol. In 1886 Congress approved construction of a separate facility christened the Jefferson Building. The edifice is a tribute to the spirit of optimism and democracy prevalent in the country at the end of the 19th century Congress wanted to build the greatest library in the world, and it did, incorporating innovations such as fireproofing, electricity and rapid book retrieval.

The library "was exemplary not only in design, but in technology," says Ford Petras, curator for art, architecture and engineering at the Library of Congress. "It was to show Europe we could do whatever they could."

In a national competition in 1873, Congress selected the firm of Smithmeyer & Pelz to design the structure. (The Old Executive Office Building is another project by the firm.) Its Italian Renaissance facade symbolizes the rebirth of learning and knowledge, an image of Western European architecture at its finest, "flavored by an American gutsiness," Petras says. The building was completed on time and under budget in 1897.

The Jefferson Building opened to great accolades; some called it the most beautiful public building in America, notes Librarian of Congress James Billington. It quickly became overcrowded, however. The art-deco John Adams Building became part of the complex in 1939, and the unremarkable James Madison Building was added in 1980 -- allowing the renovation of the Jefferson Building to begin.

About 3,500 employees (and their cubicles) moved from Jefferson to Madison. Once the building was vacant, it was possible to unearth what had been obscured, altered or overlooked in the aging building. Dropped ceilings hid murals. Office workers had set up shop in the mezzanine of the grand Great Hall. Even fundamental fire and safety codes had been overlooked. "There were only two fire extinguishers in the whole building," says consultant Arthur Cotton Moore.

Work began. Original artwork was cleaned after years of neglect. Wooden doors and furniture were sent for repair and refinishing. …

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