Dusting off America's Gilded Age

Library of Congress, recently restored, is rich in books, art and architecture

Short Hop

January 05, 2003|By Bryan Woolley | Bryan Woolley,Knight Ridder / Tribune

If the stacks of the Library of Congress were arranged end to end, they would extend from Washington to Cape Cod or Toledo, Ohio. There are 522 miles of them. Some are three stories tall. But an ordinary visitor to the library sees only a few books.

There's the Gutenberg Bible and the Giant Bible of Mainz and the roomful of books that Thomas Jefferson sold to Congress to re-establish the library after the British burned the Capitol in 1814. They're all prominently displayed in glass cases and certainly are worth seeing.

But visitors can't browse the stacks. Their best reason to visit the Library of Congress is the building itself. It's simply the most beautiful public edifice in our capital. I refer to the original Library of Congress Building, the one with the familiar green dome on top and the bronze Neptune Fountain in front. It was renamed the Jefferson Building in 1980 because the more modern and mundane Adams and Madison buildings that flank it are also parts of the library.

Construction of what is now the Jefferson Building began in 1887 and took 10 years to complete. It cost $4.5 million and was billed as "the largest, the costliest and the safest" library building in the world. Its style is Renaissance filtered through a distinctively American attitude in a time of great national self-assurance and optimism.

The Civil War and Recon-struction were finished and the country was reunited. The nation was expanding across the West. The upper half of Manhattan was being built. Machines were revolutionizing work and travel. The Rockefellers, Fisks, Carnegies, Morgans and Vanderbilts were amassing great fortunes. Americans were feeling their oats, and their belief in progress was fervent. Mark Twain called it the Gilded Age.

So when the Library of Congress moved out of the Capitol into its new building in 1897, people from all strata of society, including even those who lived in the little rowhouses on mud streets around the corner, flocked to Independence Avenue to take a look at America's shiny new national temple of learning.

Onlookers wanted to be amazed, and they were, by the gleaming gilt and white marble of its Great Hall, the paintings and mosaics and statuary of its rooms and corridors, the magnificent Main Reading Room with its vast dome, and the electric lights. The bulbs were left uncovered -- as they still are -- so that the public could look at them, for the Library of Congress was the first fully electrified building in Washington.

Over the course of a century, however, the building suffered. Its gilt faded. Its walls darkened. People painted over things, changed colors, built and removed partitions. Its overseers lost sight of its original design and function. Slowly the brilliant wonder declined into a gloomy pile.

In 1984 Congress appropriated $81.5 million to renovate the Jefferson and Adams buildings and later added $11 million for the Jefferson project. It was money well spent. The 104-year-old Jefferson Building, restored to its original splendor, now is a place where any lover of learning, art or architecture may spend hours, or even days, of bliss.

To introduce yourself to the library's treasures and splendors, you may pick up a beautifully illustrated tour booklet at the Visitors Center and find your own way about the building, or you may join a library docent for a 45-minute guided tour. I recommend the tour, for the docents' knowledge of the place is encyclopedic, and their love of the building fills their speech. They know dozens of stories and anecdotes about it.

You'll learn far more about the Greek and Roman gods and goddesses, the angels, the scientists, poets, artists, statesmen, musicians and tradesmen represented in the murals and statuary than many books can tell you.

And you'll hear the meaning of all the symbols, myths and allegories depicted on the walls and ceilings, and why the baseball and football players portrayed on one of the ceilings are nude. You'll learn that Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, gave the library $1 million to replace the two-thirds of Thomas Jefferson's books that were destroyed in a fire in 1851 with the same editions that Jefferson owned. You'll learn why the names of certain countries decorate the great dome in the Main Reading Room and others don't.

And the whole building is as clean and brilliant as it was when the opening-day crowds first walked up its wide stairs in 1897.

If you have time, do both. First, take the guided tour, then make the rounds alone at a more leisurely pace, with long pauses at the spots you love best. I spent nearly an hour gazing at the spines and titles of the books Jefferson held in his hand.

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