Great Hall, Library of Congress, Washington, DC

The Great Hall in the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, around 1900-1901. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The scene in 2018:

The Library of Congress is said to be the largest library in the world, with over 167 million items in its collections. These are housed in four different buildings in and near Washington, D.C., but the oldest of these is the main building, located directly across the street from the Capitol. Completed in 1897, and later named in honor of Thomas Jefferson in 1980, this building includes the main reading room, along with smaller specialized reading rooms and a variety of galleries.

Along with its massive collection of books, though, the Library of Congress also features outstanding Beaux-Arts architecture, on both the interior and exterior. Aside from the Main Reading Room itself, perhaps the single most impressive interior space is here in the Great Hall, where the main staircase is located. As these photos show, the space is lavishly decorated, and it includes a wide variety of works by some of the leading American painters and sculptors of the late 19th century.

This particular view shows the northeastern corner of the great hall. In the lower part of the scene is the staircase, which features carved images of young boys. Known as putti, but often conflated with cherubs, many of these figures represent different occupations, such as a printer, physician, musician, and electrician. Two others sit on opposite sides of a globe, representing Europe and Asia, and several others represent the fine arts. These were all carved by noted sculptor Philip Martiny, whose other works here included the carvings in the corner of the ceiling.

On the far right side of the scene is the arch that leads to the main reading room. It was designed by sculptor Olin L. Warner, and it features a pair of figures, one young and one old, representing knowledge. Directly above the arch is an inscription that recognizes the architects and engineers involved in constructing the library, and the inscription is flanked by a pair of eagles.

Further up in the great hall, the upper portions of the walls are painted with a variety of designs. On the left side of the scene, just to the left of the round windows, are three paintings that feature allegorical depictions of women. From left to right, they represent Understanding, Knowledge, and Philosophy. A fourth figure, just out of view to the left, represents Wisdom. Above these paintings, and around the ceiling of the second level, are a number of printers’ marks, which served as early forms of trademarks beginning in the Renaissance era.

The other noteworthy feature of the great hall is its ceiling. Although only partially visible in these views, it is decorated with murals done by artist Frederic C. Martin, in addition to the corner figures carved by Philip Martiny. Each of these carvings has two winged figures, and in between them is an image of a book and a torch, which represent learning. In the middle of the ceiling are six square skylights, with designs that match the floor of the great hall.

Today, nearly 120 years after the first photo was taken, remarkably little has changed here in the great hall. The building is popular among visitors to Washington, who are able to admire the architecture, explore the nearby exhibits, and view the library’s copy of the Gutenberg Bible, which is located on the first floor, just out of view beyond the lower right corner of the scene. Overall, the only readily visible change between these two photos is the bust of Thomas Jefferson, which now sits in what had originally been an empty niche beneath the staircase.

Interior of Old First Church, Springfield, Mass (2)

The interior of Old First Church from the balcony, around 1940. Photo from author’s collection; gift of Barbara Shaffer.

 

The church in 2015:

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The interior of Old First Church was shown in an earlier post, with a photo that was taken around 1915. At the time, the interior design was from an 1881 remodel, but in 1924 many of the Victorian changes were undone and it was restored to an early 19th century appearance. The c.1940 photo here reflects these changes, and it remains mostly the same today. There is a different organ, which was installed in 1958, the steps up to the pulpit have moved, and most of the pews to the left and right of the pulpit are gone, but there have been no major alterations since 1924.

The church was built in 1819, and after nearly 200 years it is the oldest church building still standing in the city. However, the First Church congregation itself no longer exists. With declining membership and high maintenance costs, they disbanded in 2007, and the city purchased the historic building. They regularly rent it out it out for special events, and since 2009 it has also been used by WellSpring Church for their Sunday services.

Grand Staircase, Boston Public Library (3)

The hallway at the top of the grand staircase at the McKim Building, in 1896. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

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The scene in 2016:

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Designed like a Venetian arcade, this hallway connects the grand staircase on the left side with Bates Hall, the library’s main reading room, on the right side. Like the rest of the area around the staircase, this hallway was decorated with a mural by French artist Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. When the first photo was taken, the poetry murals on the left side had not yet been added, but the large mural on the right had already been installed. It features the nine Muses who, in Greek mythology, provided inspiration for literature, science, and art, and the entire work was collectively given the title of “The Muses of Inspiration Hail the Spirit, the Harbinger of Light.”

The first photo was taken before all of the finishing touches, such as the murals on the left and the light fixtures, were added. Otherwise, very little has changed here, and this scene, along with the rest of the building, still retains the splendor that it had when it first opened over 120 years ago. As mentioned in earlier posts, the building was the combined effort of architect Charles McKim and many prominent artists, and it set the standard for public libraries that was later followed in places like New York City.

Grand Staircase, Boston Public Library (2)

Another view of the grand staircase at the McKim Building, around 1901. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The staircase in 2016:

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The previous post shows this same staircase from the opposite side. Each side has a lion statue by Louis Saint-Gaudens, the younger brother of prominent sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who also did work here at the Boston Public Library. As mentioned in the previous post, the staircase also includes nine murals by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, with the title of “The Muses of Inspiration Hail the Spirit, the Harbinger of Light.” The three panels here focus on poetry and feature three ancient Greek poets, with Virgil on the left representing pastoral poetry, Aeschylus in the middle for dramatic poetry, and Homer on the right for epic poetry. Not much has changed here since the first photo was taken, although the lamp has moved from the corner on the left side in the first photo to the right side in the 2016 view.

Grand Staircase, Boston Public Library

The grand staircase at the McKim Building, around 1901. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The staircase in 2016:

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The main branch of the Boston Public Library is a work of art. With the architecture of Charles McKim, the sculptures of Augustus and Louis Saint-Gaudens, and murals by Edwin Austin Abbey, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, and John Singer Sargent, the building combines the work of some of the world’s finest visual artists of the late 19th century. This marble staircase is one of the centerpieces of the building, which was completed in 1895. Years before the New York Public Library had its iconic lion statues, the Boston Public Library had its two lions here, which were sculpted by Louis Saint-Gaudens. The one in this view is a memorial to the 20th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry from the Civil War, and the one on the other side of the staircase is for the 2nd Regiment.

Along with the lion sculptures, the grand staircase features nine murals by French artist Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, entitled “The Muses of Inspiration Hail the Spirit, the Harbinger of Light.” The three murals visible here are, from left to right: Philosophy, Astronomy, and History. In the 2016 photo, the Philosophy one has been temporarily removed. Earlier this year, it was discovered that moisture damage was causing paint to flake off of the canvas, so the mural is currently undergoing restoration. Otherwise, nothing else has changed in this scene over the past 115 years, with the grand staircase remaining as impressive as it was when the building was first opened to the public.

Bates Hall, Boston Public Library (3)

The marble doorway in Bates Hall at the McKim Building, in 1896. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

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The view in 2016:

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As mentioned in the previous two posts here and here, Bates Hall is the main reading room at the Boston Public Library, and the first photo here shows the room shortly after the building opened. Architect Charles McKim designed the building in the Renaissance Revival style, with features such as this carved marble doorway, with the balcony above it. The two marble busts that flank the doorway are the same in both photos, although at some point in the past 120 years they were moved to opposite sides of the doorway. They are actually several decades older than the building itself; the one on the left in the 2016 photo is of Joshua Bates, the hall’s namesake, and the one on the right is of Boston author George Ticknor. Not much else has changed here, except for newer books on the shelves and different chairs, and the room remains one of Boston’s architectural treasures.