Thursday, April 6, 2017

From the Ashes

Confidently entering the House of Representatives he seated himself in the Speaker’s chair.  Upon his commanding signal the assemblage immediately came to order.

“Gentleman,” he shouted, “the question is, Shall this harbor of Yankee democracy be burned?”

“All in favor of burning it say Aye!’ he declared.

He was temporarily deafened by the boisterous affirmative response.

As he expected, his second declaration “Those opposed will say Nay.”, was met with stone-cold silence.

“Light up!” he exclaimed, satisfied that this mockery of democracy he built into the execution of his order would only add insult to the damage he and his colleagues were intent on inflicting on the Republic.

No, this is not a transcript of the One Hundred and Fifteenth Congress and the speaker referenced is not the current Speaker of the House, no matter how tempting that deduction might be in light of the scenario’s similarity to today’s political predicament. 

The event depicted actually took place in Washington DC on August 24th, 1814, during the course of the War of 1812.  The speaker was Admiral Cockburn of the British Royal Navy and the assemblage was composed of officers and soldiers of the British army. The ‘harbor of Yankee democracy’ was the Capitol of the fledgling United States of America. 

And ‘light up’ they did.  Using the books of the Library of Congress as kindling in the north wing of the Capitol they ultimately burned the Capitol to the ground along with the entirety of the Library’s modest collection.

But in a Phoenix-like resurrection that by example might offer hope for the millions concerned about the prospects for recovery from the current challenges to democracy, construction of a new Library of Congress was authorized.  Completed in early 1897, the Thomas Jefferson Library Building succeeded in serving as a grand demonstration of the resilience of the United States of America and its commitment to education, literature, arts, law and science.

Built in the Italian Renaissance style, the new building was the largest, costliest and safest library in the world.  Its classical-inspired grandeur and rich artistic appointments make it one of the most impressive public buildings in the United States. In an unapologetic expression of the scope and capabilities of American art, commissions were given to nearly fifty American sculptors and painters to decorate the interior of the building. It is these great works and their common theme of honoring the arts, literature and science that give the Library its unique character and impressive visual appeal.

According to Herbert Small's 1897 publication 'The Handbook of the New Library of Congress':
'...as general interest is concerned it is the magnificent series of mural and sculptural decorations with which the architecture is enriched that has contributed most to give the Library its notable position among American public buildings. Although a similarly comprehensive scheme of decorations was carried out at the World's Fair in Chicago... the government itself had never before called upon a representative number of American painters and sculptors to help decorate, broadly and thoroughly, one of its great public monuments.'
Despite the fact that the splendid architecture and ornate interior rival better known structures in the Old World, only a small percentage of visitors to Washington DC take the opportunity to explore it.  This final entry in my Project 66 series features a small sampling of the Library’s beautifully ornate interior captured during a recent visit to the Capital. The images are paired with descriptive passages abridged from Small's 1897 ‘Handbook of the New Library of Congress'.  The passages describe the significance of elements featured in the paired images.

Shooting the interior of the Library with a handheld camera while trying to avoid inclusion of the throngs of visitors in the main atrium and galleries presented a bit of a challenge.  The images are woefully inadequate surrogates for the real thing.  Nevertheless, I hope they inspire readers to make a journey to view the exquisite Library of Congress for themselves.

Do it before the current occupants of Washington DC decide its time to "Light up!" again, even if only metaphorically.


'The ceiling proper rests upon a white stylobate supported on the cove. It is divided
by heavy beams, elaborately paneled, and ornamental with a profusion of gilding, and
contains six large skylights, the design of which is a scale pattern, chiefly in blues and
yellows, recalling the arrangement in the marble flooring beneath.... perhaps as fine an
example of gold ornamentation on a large scale as can be found in the country. It is
impressively rich and elegant without in the least overstepping the line of modesty
and good taste.'
'Beneath the second-story cartouches on the east and west sides of the hall are
tablets inscribed in gilt letters with the names of the following authors: Longfellow
Tennyson, Gibbon, Cooper, Scott, Hugo, Cervantes. A single moulding in the marble
cornice above is touched with gold, as an introduction to the rich coloring and the
profuse use of gilding in the covered ceiling which it supports.'


'The North, South and East Corridors on the first floor of the Entrance Hall are
paneled in Italian marble to a height of eleven feet, and have floors of white, blue
and brown marble, and beautiful vaulted ceilings of marble mosaics..... In all three
corridors tablets bearing the names of distinguished men are introduced as part of
the ornament.'
'Upon the newel post which terminates the railing of each staircase is placed
a bronze female figure upholding a torch for electric lights. The two figures
are somewhat taller than life, measuring six and a half feet, or eight feet to
the top of the torch, and ten feet including the rounded bronze base on which
they stand. Each has a laurel wreath about her head, and is clad in classic
drapery.'
'The vaulting of the broad passageway to the Reading Room consists of a series
of six small domes...The colors are light and bright, and three different patterns
employed consist mainly of garlands and ribbons, and of simple bands of color
radiating from a center medallion.... and eagles occur between the double consoles
which receive the weight of the domes upon the east wall.'

'The penetrations and pendentives are richly embellished with a great variety of
ornament, both conventional and otherwise.  The treatment differs in different
corridors, however, on account of the varying relative position of the paired columns
which support the arcade - from which results first a series of wide and then a series
of narrow pendentives.'