After British troops set fire to the Capitol Building during the War of 1812, destroying the small congressional library housed in its north wing, Thomas Jefferson sold his extensive personal library of over 6,000 books to Congress to rebuild the collection. After the Civil War, the Librarian of Congress campaigned for the library’s collection to be made available to the public. As the library’s role expanded along with the size of its collection, it became necessary to commission the construction of a larger facility. This building ultimately became one of four that make up the Library of Congress and was named after Thomas Jefferson for his contributions to the institution.
Congress selected an architectural design for the new building that was modeled after the Paris Opera House. The design’s neatly arranged columns, geometric arches, and symmetrical construction reflected a return to classical ideals. The use of high-quality materials including marble, granite, and bronze represented the nation’s desire to be seen as powerful and prosperous. The Great Hall is particularly impressive. Its domed ceiling, inlaid marble floors, and imperial staircase are elaborately decorated with symbolic art and architectural elements.
For a fun activity on your visit to the Jefferson Building, try to spot the bald eagles incorporated into the design. Two of them are carved into either side of the Commemorative arch leading into the Main Reading Room. The eagles can be found throughout the building like Hidden Mickeys at Disney theme parks or Easter eggs in your favorite video game. Can you spot them all?
Cover image by Carol M. Highsmith (CC BY-SA 3.0)