Quite a Library

Talk about serendipity…as I was leaving the U.S. Capitol, I saw a sign directing visitors via a tunnel to the Library of Congress. I had vaguely considered taking a look around the famous building, but this bolt from the blue seemed to be a clear indication of what I needed to do next. And boy, was I ever glad I did! Washington D.C. is full of beautiful, historical spots, but this library has quickly become one of my personal favorites.

My good fortune continued when I learned that a tour of the building was going to start in just fifteen minutes. In the short film at the beginning we learned that the library’s many assets include: the contents of Lincoln’s pocket the night he was assassinated; a copy of the Declaration of Independence; the world’s oldest Koran; a map used by Lewis and Clark; and over 23 million books, just to scratch the surface. No wonder they’re having quite the time putting all of their resources up on the Internet.

Our guide Annetta told us that fires plagued library holdings twice in its history. The first in 1814 destroyed everything. But Thomas Jefferson came to the rescue by selling the government his fifty-year collection of 6500 books for $24,000. As bad luck would have it, two-thirds of his books then perished in a chimney fire in 1851. The current building, named for our third president, was completed in 1897 and is said to be the safest library in the world. Fingers crossed! The first room you come to is covered with mosaics on the arched ceiling. I thought I had been magically transported to Europe. But no, this is an American library, fashioned by American artisans. Just next door we got to see two of the finest treasures of the library: the giant hand-written Bible of Mainz from 1453 and a Gutenberg Bible created the following year and bought by the library for $1½ million in the 1930s!

We then went into the elaborate Great Hall. The guide pointed out the beautifully symmetrical staircases in the Italian Renaissance style. She also said that the Thomas Jefferson Building was the first public space in Washington with electricity--which was especially celebrated in this room with bronze statues of women holding torches. Little children these days are provided with scavenger hunt sheets to try and find things like carved rabbits and storks hidden in the sculpted artwork. Making the tour fun and interesting for the whole family.


Climbing to the next level, our group looked down on the beautiful Main Reading Room. Besides 236 desks, there are statues and stained glass windows representing the forty-eight states that existed when the library was built. Apparently they’re working on adding Alaska and Hawaii. Finally, we were taken to a special exhibit where Jefferson’s books are on display. Some are replacements for those lost in the second fire; 270 are still missing. But the ones marked with green satin ribbons are originals. How cool is that!

What a wonderful tour it was. I hope you'll take advantage of seeing the Library of Congress next time you're in the nation's capital.

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On Capitol Hill

Many years ago our family was at the Vatican and naturally went to see the Sistine Chapel. Unfortunately, the pièce de résistance, Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement, was being restored and thus completely hidden from view. To compensate (or perhaps as a cruel joke) officials had put up a small picture to show what we were missing! What does this have to do with the Washington D.C., you might ask? Well, that experience came flooding back to me as I approached the United States Capitol and saw that its dome is currently covered outside (and in, as I was to learn) with scaffolding. Oh well, I suppose it makes for an even more memorable visit. 

Luckily, I had read in advance that sightseers wishing to have a guided tour should have “timed passes” which are easily obtained online. So, I just walked up to the desk at the Visitors’ Center and was off for my tour in no time. I was really impressed, in fact, by how quickly people are moved through the building. It was especially good to see the effort made to help out all of the foreign visitors—subtitling short films in English and using headsets to understand clearly what the guide was saying.

The first room we saw, which has forty sandstone Doric columns supporting the Rotunda above it, was the Crypt. Strangely enough, as we found out, no one is buried there. It was originally intended to be George Washington’s final resting place but he died before the room was completed. Not surprisingly, his family didn’t care for the idea of digging him up later for reburial at the Capitol. On the same floor as the Crypt is the old Supreme Court Chamber. This semi-circular room is really quite beautiful with its arches and umbrella vaults. During the fifty or so years it served the Justices, many landmark cases took place there, including the Dred Scott decision in 1857.

Next, we climbed the stairs up to the Rotunda. Our guide explained to us that the reason for the aforementioned scaffolding was the need to repair the cast iron dome encasing the room. No small job, either, since there are over a thousand cracks in it! High above on the ceiling we were able to glimpse the fresco portraying Washington ascending into heaven surrounded by characters from classical mythology. The rest of the room, however, was a jungle of metal framework and drapery which didn’t allow for much of a view of what’s behind. Guess I’ll just have to settle for the virtual tour… 

Finally, we were brought into the Old Hall of the House, now called Statuary Hall. For nearly fifty years members of the House of Representatives met in this small amphitheater which they outgrew as the number of states increased. Another drawback was that the room’s acoustics allowed for some dead spaces (where nothing could be heard) plus other areas which permitted eavesdropping from many feet away. Not exactly ideal in political circles! We saw the spot where former president and longtime congressman John Quincy Adams had a stroke at his desk and died a few days later in a neighboring room.

Despite having to fight the scaffolds for a view at times, the tour of the Capitol was quite informative and enjoyable. I recommend it!


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