Conservatives say Library of Congress makeover plan is ‘vandalism’

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A proposed alteration to the ornate Main Reading Room in the Library of Congress that critics say would remove the symbolic and functional heart of the 1897 Beaux-Arts masterpiece landed the library on the DC Preservation League 2022 list of most endangered places.

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

When the DC Preservation League announced the listing last month, he described the alternation as misguided and unnecessary and said it would “profane the character and function of the Reading Room”. He asked Congress and the Capitol Architectthe federal agency responsible for the Capitol complex, to arrest him.

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

“I am appalled by this proposal,” said Arthur Cotton Moore, the consulting architect responsible for the renovation of the building between 1981 and 1997, in a recent telephone interview. “We are trying to avoid a tragedy.

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

Principal Assistant Librarian of Congress Mark Sweeney called the project a “game changer” that is critical to the library’s future. The DC Preservation League’s posting of the plan contains several errors, he added, including the idea that the library is detracting from its central function as a place of scholarship.

“We definitely took care of the researchers. The question is, did we take care of others? I vehemently reject this idea that we can only serve researchers. We must. We need 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 do away with the entire loan office as the Conservatives claim, he added. The outer circular wooden structure will remain, while the inner office, which Sweeney calls the tower, will be dismantled, inventoried and stored. “It could be returned if there is ever a desire to do so 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 security device will not be visible through the window or to 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 Capitol’s architect. The library’s donor group, the James Madison Council, has been notified.

“It’s one of the most important buildings in the United States, and no one has any idea what’s going on,” said Rebecca Miller, executive director of the DC Preservation League.

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

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

“It’s nothing short of vandalism. It’s one of the most recognizable interiors in the country, and this room is the heart of it,” said Pat Tiller of the Federal City Committee of 100. “If it was a critical need, it would be one thing. But for an observation platform? It’s a stupid little gesture.

Library management doesn’t see it that way.

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

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