‘Jefferson’ Has a Valuable History Lesson

Posted November 3, 2003 at 3:14pm

Lawmakers fretting over delays and cost overruns plaguing the construction of the Capitol Visitor Center need not totally despair. Just across the street from the Capitol one of America’s pre-eminent architectural triumphs, the Library of Congress’ Thomas Jefferson Building, stands as a reminder that sometimes good things do come to those who wait and spend, irrespective of how painful it might seem at the time.

Indeed, within a year of the Library site’s initial 1887 excavation, the architect whose firm was responsible for the general design, John Smithmeyer, was fired and the three-man commission appointed to oversee the project disbanded amid allegations that Smithmeyer had tried to pull one over financially on his Congressional appropriators, according to a book recently published by the Library in conjunction with Scala Publishers’ Art Spaces.

Although clocking in at a mere 64 pages, “The Thomas Jefferson Building, The Library of Congress” by Blaine Marshall and Alexander Hovan — part of a series of postcard-sized books celebrating the best of European and American art and design — provides an excellent aesthetic inventory of what was dubbed the “national temple of the arts” at its unveiling in 1897, nearly a quarter-century after Congress first initiated efforts to consider plans for such a structure.

And from Edwin Blashfield’s dreamy mural of “Human Understanding,” which looks down on the erudite from the Main Reading room’s 160-foot-high stucco dome, to John White Alexander’s charming series of lunettes following “The Evolution of the Book” to the elegant Siena marble mantles, which grace the fireplaces in The Members of Congress Room, the 600,000-square-foot neoclassical behemoth is a veritable paean to the achievements of the cerebral.

Prior to the completion of what was then known simply as the Library of Congress Building, the nation’s relatively meager collection of books — many obtained from the library of former President Thomas Jefferson — were housed in varying parts of the Capitol itself. But increased acquisitions and the danger of periodic fire motivated then-

Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Rand Spofford to press for a separate building.

But it was not until 1980 that the structure was officially renamed in honor of the United States’ third president.

By the way, after the initial management overhaul in 1888, the project proceeded smoothly. Despite initial concerns of overspending, the final bill for the building was actually $200,000 less than the $6.5 million Congress had appropriated for its construction.