Washington DC’s Hidden Jewel
One of the things I enjoyed as a teacher was visiting places that had been discussed in books and studies with my Elementary school students. One of the readers included a story about the Library of Congress and when I had an opportunity to visit Washington DC, it was the first stop of my DC sightseeing tour. And it completely reinforced the idea that there is so much more to learn when you visit places that your are studying about, as only then will you have a correct picture of the subject.
Now, to give you a better picture of this I will explain that the story went over the basic history of the Library of Congress. In 1814 the library had been held in the the National Capitol when it was burned down during the British Invasion, which itself was misleading because the Canadians were the ones who set it on fire. Shortly after that Jefferson sold his personal collection of 6497 volumes to the Library to Congress. At that time the library was used only by Congress. The story also mentions that now a copy of every book is stored in the Library of Congress.
With changes in the copyright laws, the library was receiving so many items on a daily basis there literally wasn’t any room to store them. During the 1870s the Library of Congress librarian, Ainsworth Rand Spofford, pushed to get a new library built. He wanted one that wouldn’t burn, since two more fires had burned two thirds of the 55,000 volumes that had been collected. He also wanted it organized and he wanted it to be built with future needs and requirements in mind. By 1887 plans had been approved to build it but the first builders were fired because the were suspected of padding the payroll. Brigadier General Thomas Lincoln Casey of the US Army Corp of Engineers took over the project in 1889, working with civil engineer Bernard Richard Green who came up with the idea of building an underground tunnel, connecting the library to the capitol. Several years into the project Casey and Green realized they were well under budget and though the original plans did not include any lavish decorations, they decided that they should make it a cultural monument. They enlisted twenty sculptors and nineteen painters, all American citizens, to add the embellishments to the building. The decorations modeled many of those seen at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, celebrating America’s unique cultural ambition. Even with the added features, the library was created under budget and they returned $200,000 back to congress.
Now, what I had envisioned, was seeing racks and racks of books – stored in a massive library, (today there are at least four large buildings). I was quite impressed when I saw an ariel picture, and it certainly looked like a very large library.
As I got closer, I began to get the idea that this was going to be more interesting than I had anticipated. It was a beautiful building, capped with a dome. On top of the dome is a flame which represents the idea of learning.
The Library of Congress takes up a full city block. Just around the corner, on the Independence Avenue side, you can see the part of the Fountain of Neptune in these next two pictures.
As I passed under the Commemorative Arch I had one quick stop before I could enter – the security checkpoint. This is common in most of the Federal Exhibits.
My first steps were on the marble and brass inlet floor which depicts the sun and the zodiac. The sun in the center with each zodiac sign along the outer perimeter. There were three types of Italian marble used on this floor.
And when I looked up…I gasped at the beauty that surrounded me. All I could see was marble and gold and paintings and sculptures from the European artisans who decided to make America their home. I had never seen anything so beautiful in my life. Before I continue, I must insist that you go on a tour with a docent. There is so much history in this building that you will have cheated yourself if you do the self guided tour.
At each stairway entrance is a female statue holding a torch of light, celebrating the invention of electricity.
Along each of the stairways there are plaster cast cherubs, each one depicting different facets of life and the world. This one is showing a boy from Africa and America. The one below it is revealing The gardener. Each one so unique that you take the time to see them all, even if you need to come back to it at the end.
Here is the dome, and in this picture you can see the three dimensional shape showing the etched glass rising above the ceiling just before the center cap painting. The paintings surrounding the dome represent the European, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures of that time.
In the East Corridor you can also see a copy of the Gutenberg Bible. There are only three perfect vellum copies, which means the parchment was made from calfskin. The Library of Congress has one, the others are at the British Library in London and Bibliotheque National in Paris.
In the West Corridor, opposite the Gutenberg Bible is a copy of the Giant Bible of Mainz which was also produced about the same time as the Gutenberg. Although it was much more artistic and flowery, the print quality was considered, not as good.
So at this point I have seen most of the lower level and there are no racks of books to be seen anywhere. My head is swimming with all of the beautiful craftsmanship that has been put into this place and it has certainly met its builders’ goal of being a cultural monument. I hope you will join me in my next post as we continue the tour of the upper level…the best is yet to come.
Author’s note: all photographs were taken from the Library of Congress government website or from Wikipedia, no known copyrighted material was used.