Thomas Jefferson Building Architecture
With its synthesis of architecture, art, decoration and ambition, the Library of Congress's Jefferson Building ranks among America's greatest achievements. When it opened in 1897 writers could not find enough ways to herald the new day they saw for American civilization. The grandeur of the building, its size and scope, the noble artwork and fascinating sculpture left many Americans breathless.
Many saw the new building as the fulfillment of American intellectual promise and the perfection of American art. One said that it was "likely to long remain unrivaled in this or any other country," while another opined, "Not until I stand before the judgment seat of God do I ever expect to see this building transcended."
In the late nineteenth century the architectural style of the Jefferson Building was said to be "Italian Renaissance." Today, it is recognized as a premier example of the Beaux Arts style, which is theatrical, heavily ornamented and kinetic. It is a style perfectly suited to a young, wealthy, and imperialistic nation in its Gilded Age. The materials -- marble (15 varieties), granite (400,000 cubic feet), bronze, gold, mahogany -- were expensive but would last a thousand years.
In plan the Jefferson Building is a hollow rectangle with a rotunda, bookstacks, and four courtyards occupying the core. (Two of the courtyards have been filled with additional bookstacks while another was partially filled with a recital hall.) Corner and central pavilions are connected by hyphens (called "curtains") and create five-part compositions on the west and east fronts.
The principal front faces the Capitol, rising four stories above grade with a low dome covering the central reading room. A monumental split stair rises in multiple flights to the main entrance, with three pairs of sculpted bronze doors.
The granite exterior is heavily rusticated and vermiculated at the lowest level but grows finer and smoother as the walls rise. Paired Corinthian columns were employed at the central portico, which also has portrait busts of famous writers framed by circular windows.
At the building's pinnacle the "Flame of Knowledge" is gold leafed, as was the copper dome until the 1930s.