The oldest of the three United States LIBRARY OF CONGRESS buildings, the THOMAS JEFFERSON BUILDING, was built between 1890 and 1897. It was originally known as the Library of Congress Building. The Beaux-Arts style building is known for its classicizing facade and elaborately decorated interior. Its design and construction has a tortuous history; the building’s main architect was Paul J. Pelz, initially in partnership with John L. Smithmeyer, and succeeded by Edward Pearce Casey during the last few years of construction.
The Jefferson Building was the first separate Library of Congress Building, and was suggested by Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Rand Spofford in 1871, authorized in 1886, and completed in 1897. When its doors were opened to the public on November 1, 1897, it represented an unparalleled national achievement: its 23-carat gold-plated dome capped the “largest, costliest, and safest” library building in the world. Its elaborately decorated facade and interior, for which more than forty American painters and sculptors could surpass European libraries in grandeur and devotion to classical culture. A contemporary guidebook boasted: “America is justly proud of this gorgeous and palatial monument to its National sympathy and appreciation of Literature, Science, and Art. It has been designed and executed entirely by American art and American labor (and is) a fitting tribute for the great thoughts of generations past, present, and to be.” This new national Temple of the Arts immediately met with overwhelming approval from the American public.
Known as the Library of Congress (or Main) Building until it was named for Thomas Jefferson, the Library’s principal founder, in 1980, the structure was built specifically to serve as the American national library, and its architecture and decoration express and enhance that purpose. A national library for the United States was the dream and goal of Librarian Spofford; the new building was a crucial step in his achievement. It was a functional, state-of-the-art structure as well as a Temple of the Arts, using the latest technology throughout.