The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Preservationists say Library of Congress makeover plan is ‘vandalism’

The library’s Main Reading Room, included in a $60 million renovation of the Thomas Jefferson Building, lands on the D.C. Preservation League’s list of endangered places

Patrons walk through the Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress in 2019. (Will Newton for The Washington Post)

A proposed change to the ornate Main Reading Room at the Library of Congress that critics say would remove the symbolic and functional heart of the 1897 Beaux-Arts masterpiece has landed the library on the D.C. Preservation League’s 2022 list of Most Endangered Places.

The Library of Congress plans to remove the mahogany librarian’s desk that rises some 16 feet in the middle of this spectacular, first-floor room and replace it with a circular window in the floor that will offer a view of its decorative dome to visitors looking up from the floor below.

When the D.C. Preservation League announced the listing last month, it described the alteration as ill-advised and unnecessary and said it would “desecrate the Reading Room’s character and function.” It asked Congress and the Architect of the Capitol, the federal agency responsible for the Capitol complex, to stop it.

The league’s listing is the most recent and public criticism of the proposal, which was unveiled more than three years ago. It follows a retired librarian’s complaint submitted to the Library of Congress inspector general in April and expressions of outrage from arts and civic leaders.

“I’m appalled at this proposal,” Arthur Cotton Moore, the consulting architect on the building’s renovation between 1981 and 1997, said in a recent phone interview. “We are trying to head off a tragedy.”

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The alteration is part of a $60 million makeover of the Thomas Jefferson Building, one of three Library of Congress structures on Capitol Hill. The makeover includes additional exhibition space, a learning lab and an orientation center and is intended to improve the visitor experience and increase attendance.

Principal Deputy Librarian of Congress Mark Sweeney called the project a “game changer” that is critical to the library’s future. The D.C. Preservation League’s posting about the plan has several errors, he added, including the idea that the library is turning away from its central function as a place for scholarship.

“We have definitely taken care of the researchers. Question is, have we taken care of other people? I reject vehemently this idea that we can't serve more than researchers. We have to. We have to democratize access to this. And it can be done well, tastefully, but not without some level of change,” he said.

The plan does not remove the entire circulation desk as preservationists contend, he added. The outer circular wooden structure will remain, while the inner desk, which Sweeney calls the tower, will be disassembled, inventoried and stored. “It could be returned if there’s ever a desire to do that in the future,” he said.

The book delivery system will be moved to the perimeter of the room, and a retractable fire curtain will be installed. This safety feature will not be visible through the window or by researchers in the reading room, he said.

The Library of Congress is not required to hold public hearings on the plan, but it has met regularly with congressional committees and the Architect of the Capitol. The library’s donor group, the James Madison Council, has been briefed.

“This is one of the most important buildings in the United States, and nobody has any idea this is happening,” D.C. Preservation League Executive Director Rebecca Miller said.

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Congress has given the library $40 million for the project since 2019 and the library is close to reaching $20 million in private donations to cover the balance, Sweeney said. Philanthropist David M. Rubenstein has pledged $10 million.

The design is not finished, although the library hopes to have final plans by the end of the year, Sweeney said. That leaves the plan’s critics little time.

“This is nothing short of vandalism. This is one of the most recognizable interiors in the nation, and that room is its heart,” said Pat Tiller of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City. “If it were a critical need, that would be one thing. But for a viewing platform? It’s a small, silly gesture.”

Library management does not see it that way.

“More people need to visit the library, need to experience it, to understand why it’s important, who we serve. We’re very excited about this,” Sweeney said.