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Library of Congress, John Adams Building

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formerly Thomas Jefferson Annex
1935–1939, Pierson and Wilson; Alexander B. Trowbridge. Corner of 3rd St. and Independence Ave. SE
  • (Theodor Horydczak Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)
  • (Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)
  • (Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)
  • (Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

A major concern of the architects of the Library of Congress annex was the proper contextual relationship among the three library buildings occupying the two adjacent blocks bounded by East Capitol Street on the north and Independence and Pennsylvania avenues on the south. Institutionally, Pierson and Wilson's building is allied to Smithmeyer and Pelz's 1897 Library of Congress, but spiritually, it responds to Paul Philippe Cret's Folger Library, completed in 1932. The challenge was to mediate between two such disparate interpretations of the classical tradition yet create a building with its own architectural character. In their design the architects successfully fused elements from both buildings and added a modernized decorative vocabulary, largely the work of sculptor Lee Lawrie.

The volumetric organization of the John Adams Building is similar to that of the Thomas Jefferson Building (see CH12): a rectangle with corner and central pavilions linked by wide, fenestrated curtains terminated by a high recessed attic story. Like the Folger, it has both ceremonial and functional facades. The Independence Avenue entrance is treated in a traditional Beaux-Arts manner with controlled progression up and into the building and with important interior spaces (fifth-floor reading rooms) strung along the main axis. However, these basic organizational elements are overlaid by features derived from modernist and Art Deco vocabularies. These include planar wall surfaces, sunken window frames, and stylized decoration, mainly variants on the honeysuckle flower ornament popular in American architecture since the early nineteenth century. Vertically linked window bays alternate with narrow strips of marble-clad walls, a modern expression of the basic rhythm of peripteral temples that Cret had exploited as a salient design feature at the Folger. Pierson and Wilson also adopted Cret's use of an anthemion frieze set well below the cornice line in place of a traditional entablature.

Materials—whether stone, metal, or plastic—are used in particularly elegant ways. The matte finish of the white Georgia marble and North Carolina pink granite on the exterior gives way to colorful and highly polished marble interiors from quarries throughout the country. Chased bronze surfaces on the seven pairs of exterior doors are complemented by shiny bronze and anodized aluminum interior panels and doors. Low-relief figures on the exterior doors represent individuals credited with giving the art of writing to their cultures. Modeled by Lee Lawrie, they were made by the Flour City Ornamental Iron Company in Minneapolis, as was the extensive interior metal decoration. Art Deco zigzags and streamlining were applied to the anthemion, producing designs of great vitality. The architects won an award in the National Plastics Competition for the use of formica, a new material used with aluminum for the catalogue cases in the catalogue room separating the two reading rooms on the fifth floor. The reading room table tops are also of formica. In addition to being a rigid material with a “satin-smooth” surface, formica was advertised as a good interior building material because it was cigarette, cocktail, and stain proof, and when imitating wood surfaces, such as the table tops, achieved “imperishable beauty.”

The major spaces are all on the top floor; the monumental entry to them from the south is currently closed. The reading rooms are rectilinear with square columns creating recesses along the side walls. In addition to Art Deco detailing, these spaces are decorated with murals painted by Ezra Winter, showing friezes of Chaucer's Canterbury Pilgrims in the north reading room and scenes inspired by Thomas Jefferson's writings in the south reading room.

Writing Credits

Pamela Scott and Antoinette J. Lee



  • 1935


What's Nearby


Pamela Scott and Antoinette J. Lee, "Library of Congress, John Adams Building", [Washington, District of Columbia], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—,

Print Source

Buildings of the District of Columbia, Pamela Scott and Antoinette J. Lee. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993, 145-146.

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