Contact: Helen Dalrymple (202) 707-1940, Jill Brett (202) 707-2905

February 20, 1997

Thomas Jefferson Building of Library of Congress Officially Reopens May 1, 1997

Library Marks Completion of 12-Year Renovation

The Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress will officially reopen to the public on May 1, 1997, following more than a decade of restoration and modernization which were managed by the Office of the Architect of the Capitol.

The occasion will be marked by the opening of "Treasures of the Library of Congress," an unprecedented permanent exhibition of the rarest and most significant items relating to America's past drawn from every corner of the world's largest library. The exhibition, which will be on view in the Southwest Gallery and Pavilion, is made possible by a grant from the Xerox Foundation.

"When it opened in 1897," said James H. Billington, Librarian of Congress, "the Jefferson Building was called the most beautiful public building in America.' The building's restoration, like its original construction, is a testimonial to the steadfast support and foresight of the Congress of the United States and of the American people they represent."

The first home of the Library of Congress after moving out of the U.S. Capitol, the Jefferson Building opened to the public in November 1897.

Some of the highlights of the renovated Jefferson Building are a new Visitors Center and expanded Sales Shop located at the ground level entrance of the west front of the building; a 90-seat visitors' theater with a new film about the Library of Congress; special rooms for the display of the Ralph Ellison Collection, the Woodrow Wilson Collection and the Oliver Wendell Holmes Library; a Performing Arts Gallery, where selected items from the Library's music and flute collections will be displayed; and a room to honor the contributions to American music of George and Ira Gershwin. Especially notable is the cleaning of the marble and artwork, which has lightened and brightened the soaring spaces of the Great Hall and "the Rotunda," now known as the Main Reading Room.

Restoration Process

Renovation of the two older Library of Congress buildings, the Thomas Jefferson and John Adams buildings, was divided into two phases. Both of the buildings remained open for service throughout the renovation process, although there was some inconvenience to staff, researchers and visitors while approximately one-half of each building was closed for construction.

Initial work on the restoration of the Jefferson Building west terrace and Neptune Fountain and the modernization of some of the elevators and fire protection systems was carried out in 1984-1985 and completed before Phase I construction began. Phase I construction began in September 1986 and ended in December 1989. Phase II construction started in September 1991 and was completed in August 1994. In the interim, the Library prepared the renovated spaces for occupancy and moved staff and collections, allowing for the next phase of work. Following completion of Phase II, the Library made arrangements for full occupancy of the building.

The Main Reading Room, which closed to the public in December 1987, was reopened for service in June 1991. The Great Hall of the Jefferson Building was closed in June 1990, but it has been open on a limited basis for special exhibitions since January 1993.

Great care was taken throughout the restoration process to ensure that modernization did not mar the original design of the Jefferson Building. Sprinkler heads -- fire protection was a major feature of the renovation for both buildings -- are artfully hidden in the classical ceiling rosettes, and telecommunications cables are hidden in custom extruded aluminum baseboards to match original cast iron and wood base. Wooden doors were removed and sent out for repair and refinishing; original light fixtures were repaired and refurbished; windows were restored and new storm windows were added; original colors and details of decorative plaster, painting and gilded areas were carefully restored, as well as marble, mosaics, floors, ceilings and woodwork. Old electrical and mechanical systems were removed and new ones installed. A new under-floor duct system was installed in the Adams Building. A complete modernization of the heating, ventilating and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems was undertaken in both buildings, and an asbestos control management plan was carried out. Finally, some 20 conservators cleaned and restored more than 100 of the murals in the Jefferson Building.

History of the Thomas Jefferson Building

The Jefferson Building is a monument to the idealism and optimism of the last decade of the 19th century. Its Italian Renaissance facade evokes memories of great European buildings, and its marble columns, bronze and plaster statues, elaborate mosaic floors and decorated ceilings, stained glass windows and murals on walls and ceilings dazzle the eye. Every feature of the building is rich in allegory and meaning; taken together they serve as a tribute to learning, knowledge and human understanding. There are myths and legends from classical literature, the seasons of nature, the ages of man and the written traditions of the world. The building also celebrates the civilizing institutions of the family, government, religion and art, and the quotations on the walls drawn from the great minds of the past serve both to educate and inspire the viewer.

The Jefferson Building (called simply the Main Building until it was renamed in 1980) was designed by the Washington, D.C., firm of Smithmeyer and Pelz, which won a national competition -- and $1,500 -- for its Italian Renaissance design in December 1873. After a number of delays, work began on laying the building's foundation in February 1888, and the cornerstone was laid in the northeast corner of the building on August 28, 1890. Gen. Thomas L. Casey of the U.S. Army Engineers oversaw the construction of the building from 1888 until his death in 1896. Bernard Green, the superintendent of construction under Gen. Casey, then assumed the job.

Paul J. Pelz, a partner in the firm that won the competition for the original design, served as the architect from October 1888 until he was dismissed in May 1892. The new architect of the building, who was placed in charge of all interior design and decoration in December 1892, was Edward Pearce Casey, the son of Gen. Thomas Casey. More than 50 sculptors and painters were commissioned to create works of art for the new building. Many of them had worked together on the buildings and art of the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, which, according to architectural critic, Pierce Rice, "had provided the example of painter, sculptor, and architect working side by side. The Library of Congress was the first great building that sprang out of the Chicago vision."

The Colonnades

A highlight of the restored Jefferson Building for researchers is the two-level colonnades that are signature features of the new Asian, European, and African and Middle Eastern reading rooms in the north and south galleries of the first and second floors. They were designed by Arthur Cotton Moore/Associates, the consulting architect hired by the Architect of the Capitol to oversee the restoration. Following is a description of the colonnades by Mr. Moore:

"We reactivated the notion of a set of subordinate reading rooms occupying each of the grand halls (known as curtains).... These newly balconied reading rooms,subdivided by angular bookcases ... into study areas, are shaped to soften the impact and at the same time make a processional of kneeling-like forms to the two story building inside the second half of the curtain. ... The new building inner architecture was conceived to provide for future expansion on its upper (mezzanine) level, but could immediately contain the offices ... of the specialists, academics, and librarians who would help people do research in the field. The architectural design refers abstractly to both famous precedents in European libraries and to the Baroque design of the building. ... Conceived and designed like large pieces of furniture in dark mahogany, these mini-buildings ... are constructed of hollow members permitting an almost infinite variety of wiring and access for those unknown 21st century information delivery systems."


The Thomas Jefferson Building cost $6.1 million to build in 1897 (some $115.3 million in 1996 dollars). A sum of $81.5 million was appropriated by Congress in 1984 to pay for its restoration, along with the upgrading and renovation of the 1939 John Adams Building across the street. Another $10 million has been allocated since 1984 to repair the roof of the Jefferson Building and to complete the renovation of its renowned Coolidge Auditorium. A detailed fact sheet about the renovation of the Jefferson and Adams buildings is attached.


  • Buildings modernized to bring them into compliance with current health, safety, and ADA standards.
  • The heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems upgraded to provide improved environmental conditions for staff and collections and to maintain these conditions as greater quantities of heat-generating equipment is added to the buildings.
  • Electrical systems modernized and upgraded to accommodate growing equipment requirements and to operate the latest office equipment and systems.
  • Modernized lighting systems installed in staff work areas.
  • Data communications systems upgraded to accommodate growing staff needs and the newest technologies of data and voice transmissions.
  • Plumbing systems modernized to bring them into compliance with current standards to provide adequate water flow to areas with specialized requirements.
  • Sprinkler systems and other fire protection devices added to the perimeters of the buildings as well as the bookstacks.
  • Security systems modernized and added for more complete protection of staff and collections.
  • Windows, walls, floors, ceilings, and other architectural features repaired, cleaned, and refinished to prevent further deterioration and to preserve the buildings.
  • Wall and ceiling art restoration work performed in areas where these features had progressively deteriorated.
  • Modern partition systems installed in both buildings for more efficient use of floor space.
  • Eating facilities modernized in both buildings.
  • Exhibition spaces expanded to include the second floor west front of the Jefferson Building.
  • Colonnades added to three new reading rooms on the first and second floors of the Jefferson Building to increase the number of reader desks available, as well as to provide a more efficient and quieter study environment.
  • Card catalogs removed from the Main Reading Room, and seating capacity expanded to accommodate 226 readers (from 182). Computer Catalog Center enlarged to accommodate 59 users. A new Computer Catalog Center for public use established on the fifth floor of the Adams Building. (See following about the renovation of the Main Reading Room.)
  • Study facilities for visiting scholars increased and modernized.
  • New Visitors Center, expanded Sales Shop, and Orientation Theater established on the ground floor west front of the Jefferson Building.
  • Coolidge Auditorium in Jefferson renovated; scheduled to open in October 1997.
  • Graphics system compatible with rest of buildings on Capitol Hill introduced.
  • All elevators modernized.
  • West Terrace of Jefferson Building and Neptune Fountain renovated.


  • All existing millwork in the Main Reading Room was refinished, including the reader desks and center reference desk. Where needed, new custom millwork was designed and installed. This included replacement of a missing portion of the center desk, custom CD-ROM workstations for six of the eight reading room alcoves, and an entry screen on the east side duplicating the west main entry screen.
  • Card catalog cases, added to the room three years after its opening in 1897, were removed and replaced by 44 additional reader desks originally located in this portion (east side) of the room. The total seating capacity now accommodates 226 readers. The desks replicate the design of the other existing reader desks. The card catalog cases removed from the perimeter of the center room were converted to new adjustable shelving and the room was redesigned to function as the reference assistance area. The card catalog drawers are accessible on Decks 33 and 16 adjacent to the Main Reading Room.
  • The reader desk lamps, installed in the 1940s, were refurbished. The lamps were duplicated to provide the lamps for the 24 additional reader desks.
  • All reader desks were wired to provide power and data for patrons bringing in their own computers.
  • The original 1897 bronze reference tables that were removed along with the card catalog cases were refurbished to be reused in the reading room alcoves.
  • The reader chairs which were purchased for the room in the 1940s and 1950s were refurbished for use in the room. The original 1897 reader chairs, of which only nine remain, were also refurbished but are not currently in use. An original restored 1897 reader table and a book carousel can be found in the Reference Assistance Area.
  • The reading room was carpeted for the first time, with a custom-designed Wilton carpet, manufactured in England for the Library. The carpet design incorporates two of the architectural elements found in the room -- the ceiling rosettes and the wreaths located above the marble columns.
  • Paint scrapings were done to determine the original colors, and the walls, ceilings and original iron shelving in the alcoves were restored to this 1897 color scheme.
  • On the upper levels, exterior windows that were formerly covered over were uncovered and restored, allowing additional daylight back into the room.
  • On the second floor gallery level the alcoves were glassed-in to reduce the noise level. Custom-designed light fixtures were also added to these alcoves. The fixtures duplicate historic fixtures located elsewhere in the building.
  • The visitors' gallery was glassed-in to provide further noise control.
  • The adjacent Computer Catalog Center was modernized and expanded to accommodate 59 patrons. The exterior framing of the card catalog units formerly in this space was preserved and the interiors fitted with work surfaces on which the terminals and printers are placed.
  • A fire sprinkler system was designed to conform to the ceiling vaults in the alcoves.

Architect: Architect of the Capitol

Consulting Architects: Arthur Cotton Moore/Associates

Phase I Contractor: Grunley-Walsh Construction Co.

Phase II Contractor: Grunley-Walsh Construction Co.

Building Statistics:

Jefferson Building
Net assignable area approx. 600,000 sq. ft.
Shelving 104 miles
Parking 94 cars
Coolidge Auditorium 511 seats
Main Reading Room 226 seats
Original cost $6,032,000
Date construction began April 1886
Date completed November 1897
Date named (PL 96-269) June 13, 1980
Adams Building
Net assignable area approx. 713,000 sq. ft.
Shelving 180 miles
Parking 88 cars
Science Reading Room 176 seats
Original cost $8,226,000
Date construction began June 1935
Date completed April 1939
Date named (PL 96-269) June 13, 1980

# # #

PR 96-111
ISSN 0731-3527

Back to top