The running waters of the Neptune Fountain splashing around the king of the sea, tritons, sea nymphs, turtles, frogs, and sea serpents — sculpted by an obviously talented 27-year-old artist — provide a playful yet classical introduction to the gorgeous Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress behind it.
Columns, a copper dome turned green, eagles, and atlantes embellish the Beaux Arts building, completed in 1897 as the “largest, costliest, and safest library building in the world” (and the first building in D.C. to be constructed with electricity installed).
The details kept coming, drawing me closer to the entrance, past the beautiful verdigris-green lampposts on the broad staircases, to the top of the steps. Above me, six robed female figures luxuriating in the spandrels of the arches above the three main entrance doors and busts of influential historical figures such as Dante and Benjamin Franklin beckoned me closer, so I decided to go inside for a peek. That intended quick glance evolved into a visit of several hours.
Crowded with tourists who must have known that this was something special, the Jefferson Building immediately became my favorite building in the city. As soon as I entered, the lavish interior halted me in my tracks, until a security guard encouraged me to move along, but I couldn’t help myself: The Great Hall, an opulent Italian Renaissance-style area, with Corinthian columns and a stained-glass skylight 75 feet above the marble floor embellished with signs of the zodiac, was designed to stop visitors and immediately infuse them with a sense of awe.
I passed under the Commemorative Arches to one of two exhibits on the first floor that quickly caught my attention — the Bibles Gallery. Protected in a glass showcase, the Giant Bible of Mainz is not only truly giant (each page measures 22 by 16 inches), but also historic: Written by one scribe over the course of 15 months in 1452 and 1453 and decorated with colorful plants, flowers, and human and animal figures by multiple artists, it’s one of the last great handwritten giant European Bibles. Across from it, also under glass, rests its descendent, the Gutenberg Bible, the first printed giant European Bible, produced just a couple of years later.
The second exhibit, “Mapping a Growing Nation: From Independence to Statehood,” hosts a fantastic collection of very early, and beautifully rendered, American maps, the most important of which is Abel Buell’s “New and Correct Map of the United States,” from 1784 — the first map of the new country to be designed, printed, and published in the United States by an American.
Two marble staircases laden with cherubs symbolizing the continents and with putti carved into the railings, representing occupations and hobbies — such as one holding a rabbit (a hunter), another holding a telephone receiver (electrician), a third with a butterfly net (entomologist) — lead up to the second floor, where the attraction is the building itself, a visual feast created by nearly 50 American sculptors and painters.
Four arched open galleries with vaulted ceilings covered in mosaics circle around the Great Hall. The lunettes in the Family Gallery hold murals depicting scenes of a pleasant, well-ordered life, highlighted by the largest one, The Family, which shows the male head of his household returning from a hunt and being welcomed by his wife, children, and parents. In the Poetry Gallery, poets’ names are spelled out in mosaics on the ceiling — Longfellow, Whitman, Poe, Shelley, Petrarch, and many more.
Elsewhere on this floor, I marveled at the colorful American, British, Spanish, and French printers’ marks, akin to today’s trademarks; circular panels filled with paintings of allegorical figures representing the seasons; larger allegorical figures representing astronomy, history, and romance; mosaic designs portraying various fields (a palette for art; an Ionic column for architecture); and profound quotes over doorways between laurel wreaths and lamps of knowledge (“The history of the world is the biography of great men.”; “Nature is the art of God.”)
The only space I wanted to explore that remains off limits to the casual visitor is the Main Reading Room. However, through the windows in the Visitor’s Gallery next to the tall mosaic Minerva of Peace, I was able to look inside at researchers conducting their endeavors amid a spectacular setting of arches, columns, and balustrades; portrait statues of artists, commercial innovators, historians, philosophers, poets, religious leaders, and scientists; and allegorical figures representing those same fields — all under a coffered domed ceiling that rises 160 feet above the floor and whose lantern features a female figure representing human understanding, ringed by a dozen figures personifying countries that have contributed to the evolution of Western civilization: Greece for philosophy, for example, Italy for fine arts, England for literature, and so on.
Within this great center of learning, I pondered one of the quotes written above me: “Knowledge comes but wisdom lingers.” As I left the Jefferson Building, I flattered myself to think I had just acquired a little of both.