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Byline: Bob Dart Cox News Service

After nearly two decades of renovation, the Library of Congress opened its historic main building last week, revealing striking architectural features long hidden in an overcrowded facility.

Located next to the Supreme Court on Capitol Hill, the Library's Thomas Jefferson Building has been undergoing an $81.5 million restoration and modernization since 1980. The project was completed in segments, so parts of the century-old building have been closed for varying periods, but there was never a complete shutdown.

The revitalization, however, will enable visitors to see artistic and architectural features unseen for years behind a jumble of drop ceilings and makeshift offices.

``When it opened in 1897, the Jefferson Building was called `the most beautiful public building in America,' '' said James H. Billington, the librarian of Congress.

The restoration project was made possible when the facility's modernistic James Madison Building opened nearby in 1981 and provided new space for offices and many of the 20 million books and other documents stored by the world's largest library.

Until then, the space inside the original Jefferson Building had been filled by bureaucrats, researchers and the ever-growing collection of 110 million items. The overcrowding forced spacious, arched hallways and airy auditoriums to be converted to cramped rows of offices.

Through the years, the murals on the ceilings were also blackened by cigarette smoke and grime. They were carefully cleaned and brightened in the restoration.

Established in 1800 as a research facility for the legislative branch of government, the Library of Congress was originally housed in the Capitol. Its fledgling collection of books was consumed by fire when the British burned much of Washington during the War of 1812.

To restock the Library of Congress - and ease his own debt burden - Thomas Jefferson sold his own collection of about 6,700 books to Congress for about $24,000 in 1815. His books are still part of the Library's ever-expanding collection.

In 1897, the Library of Congress moved from the Capitol to the Jefferson Building, which cost $6.1 million to construct. Among the renovated areas is the main reading room - a solemn, paneled rotunda beneath a towering, ornate dome.

Along with the reopening, the Library of Congress has created a permanent, rotating exhibition called ``American Treasures'' in which it will display some of its rarest and most significant items.

Among the items:

Jefferson's own draft of the Declaration of Independence, with editing by Benjamin Franklin and John Adams.

The contents of Abraham Lincoln's pockets on the night of his assassination, including a Confederate $5 bill.

Maya Lin's original drawing for the design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

The geometry lessons of a 16-year-old George Washington.

The renovated Jefferson Building has a new visitors center and entrance on the sidewalk level on First Street, near the corner of Independence Avenue. The nearest Metro stop is Capitol South, on the Metro blue and orange lines.The library is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Free tickets for the ``American Treasures'' exhibit can be picked up at the visitors center. The collection can also be viewed on the Internet at For information, call (202) 707-5000.



Photo: A major restoration of the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress has revealed some dazzling features, such as the ornamental dome.

Michael Geissinger/The New York Times
COPYRIGHT 1997 Daily News
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:TRAVEL
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 4, 1997

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