A Monument to Shakespeare: The Architecture of the Folger Shakespeare Library
A Monument to Shakespeare
Welcome to the Folger
I shower a welcome on ye; welcome all. Shakespeare, Henry VIII, 1.4.75.
Welcome, scholar who wants to consult our collections, catalogs, and images. Welcome, curious person wondering what is inside this building. Welcome, Shakespeare fanatic and the traveling companion humoring you. Welcome, unpaid Congressional intern in search of a free place to hang out. Welcome, the next William Shakespeare, Toni Morrison, or Emily Dickinson. Welcome, literature lover who traveled 3,000 miles to see a First Folio. Welcome, Senators, Representatives, and Supreme Court Justices, our neighbors who are working to make our democracy everything it can be. Welcome, local who knows we are Capitol Hill’s best kept secret. Bienvenido, persona quien quiere leer Hamlet en español. Welcome, family with 36 hours to see a thousand monuments and museums. Welcome, tourist who thinks we are part of the Library of Congress. Welcome, student writing an essay on Macbeth due tomorrow morning. Welcome, skeptic who has never read or seen a Shakespeare play and wonders what the big deal is. Welcome, would-be actor who wants to play Romeo or Juliet, Othello or Beatrice. Welcome, owner of an old copy of Shakespeare’s plays in your attic. Welcome, lover of architecture drawn by the sculptures and inscriptions on our walls. Welcome, person who just needs a restroom or directions to somewhere else. Welcome, genealogist who wants to learn how to read old handwriting. Welcome, parent or caregiver in search of an indoor place to turn the kids loose. Welcome, journalist in need of a quiet place to meet unnamed sources. Welcome, literary detective in search of Shakespeare’s long-lost plays. Welcome, couple who used a Shakespeare sonnet in your commitment ceremony. Welcome, person with a weakness for ruffs. Welcome, editor working on a Shakespeare edition for the next generation. Welcome, authorship questioner who wonders how an actor from Stratford-upon-Avon could glow with such genius. Welcome, grown-up who remembers reciting “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” in class or performing Shakespeare as a child. Welcome, teenager who wants to master Shakespearean insults. Welcome, person who wants to impress a blind date... We are here to help you, whoever you are.
The Folger is an extraordinary building, an American monument to another country’s national hero in the heart of Capitol Hill. Its modernized classical exterior and English Renaissance interior (the contrasting styles are lovingly referred to as “Tudor-deco”) earned it a place on the National Register of Historic Places in 1969. This designation was expanded in 2018 to include the original interior of the building. As soon as it was built, the Folger became a prototype for a wide range of public buildings and monuments across America that maintained a classical spirit while simplifying, modernizing, and abstracting many of classical architecture’s most distinctive features.
Home to the world’s largest collection of Shakespeare-related books, manuscripts, art, and artifacts, the building was a collaboration between Paul Cret, a French émigré trained in the Beaux-Arts style, and Henry and Emily Folger, a New York couple who shared a lifelong passion for Shakespeare and collecting. By locating their monument to Shakespeare and his age at the heart of civic life, the Folgers and Cret made a bold statement in marble and wood: that the wisdom of literature and history are indispensable to the life of a democracy. A Monument to Shakespeare: The Architecture of the Folger Shakespeare Library tells the story of how their combined vision and attention to detail resulted in a building that Emily Folger later described as “The First Folio, Illustrated.”
A Monumental Timeline
1879 As an undergraduate at Amherst College, Henry Clay Folger (1857-1930) attends a lecture by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Inspired by Emerson’s writings, including his discovery of an 1864 speech on Shakespeare, Folger becomes a collector of Shakespeareana.
1885 Henry Folger and Emily Jordan (1858-1936) marry. Henry’s wedding gift to Emily is a facsimile copy of the 1623 First Folio, the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays.
1889 Henry and Emily Folger purchase their first rare book at an auction in New York City, a copy of Shakespeare’s 1685 Fourth Folio.
1896 Emily Folger earns a master’s degree from Vassar College. Her thesis is titled “The True Text of Shakespeare.”
1911 Henry Folger becomes president of Standard Oil Company of New York (later Mobil Oil).
1914 Amherst College awards Henry Folger an honorary doctorate in recognition of the Folgers’ growing Shakespeare collection.
1923 Henry Folger becomes chairman of the board of Standard Oil Company of New York.
1919-27 Henry Folger quietly purchases 14 houses known as Grant’s Row in the 200 block of East Capitol Street, to be the future site of the library, after ruling out other locations in the US and Great Britain.
1928 January: The Folgers learn of the Library of Congress’s plan to build an annex on the site that includes Grant’s Row. After learning of the Folgers’ plan, the Librarian of Congress and the Chairman of the House Committee on the Library of Congress enthusiastically lobby to exclude Grant’s Row from the bill to build the annex.
March: Henry Folger retires from his position as chairman of the board of Standard Oil of New York to devote himself full-time to plans for the Folger Shakespeare Library.
May: A bill to acquire squares 760 and 761 to build a Library of Congress annex (amended to exclude the northern half of square 760, which had been ceded to Henry Folger) passes the House, the Senate, and is signed by the President. The annex, now known as the John Adams Building, opened in 1939.
September: Alexander Trowbridge is brought onto the project as consulting architect.
1929 Paul Philippe Cret is selected as architect; Cret subsequently recommends John Gregory to sculpt the bas-reliefs. Design work intensifies.
October: Stock market crashes
1930 Construction begins; final decisions about interior design are made.
June 11: Henry Folger dies unexpectedly of heart failure after an operation, at age 73, just after the cornerstone is laid.
1931 First books arrive at the Folger from warehouse storage.
After Henry Folger's estate proves much smaller than expected because of the 1929 stock market crash, Emily Folger provides more than $3 million in securities and other gifts; she supplies additional funds a year later.
1932 April 23: The Folger Shakespeare Library is dedicated on the traditional day of Shakespeare’s birthday. President Herbert Hoover, foreign ambassadors, and prominent members of the business and civic communities attend. The event is broadcast live on local radio stations across the country.
Emily Folger receives an honorary doctorate from Amherst College in acknowledgment of her efforts to complete the Folger Shakespeare Library.
1948 An American Institute of Architecture journal poll asked 500 member-architects to name their “most thrilling building.” The top four buildings are the Folger Shakespeare Library, the Lincoln Memorial, Radio City Center, and the Nebraska State Capitol.
1969 The exterior of the original 1932 building is added to the National Register of Historic Places.
2018 The interior of the original 1932 building is also added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Before the Folger: a very brief history
For over ten thousand years, Capitol Hill and the nearby riverbanks of the Anacostia and Potomac were the hunting, farming, fishing, gathering, and trading grounds for the prosperous Nacotchtanks, an Algonquin-speaking community who had long enjoyed the bounty of the region’s tidewater and forests. The Folger’s site, located on a flat crest on top of what is today Capitol Hill, may have been a central farming location where the Nacotchtanks harvested corn, beans, and squash. Captain John Smith, who visited a Nacotchtank trading center located on the east banks of the Anacostia River in 1608, recorded a population of 300 people, although the number of people may have been much higher. By the mid-seventeenth century, epidemic diseases brought by European traders claimed a staggering number of Nacotchtank lives. Survivors sought refuge with neighboring communities or kin.
A Close Call: A crucial assist from the Librarian of Congress
Shortly after the Folgers acquired Grant’s Row (the northern half of square 760 on the real estate plat-book map), they learned that the United States Congress planned to locate an annex to the Library of Congress on the same site. Mr. Folger sent a concerned letter to Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam on January 19, 1928, expressing his desire to “help make the United States a center for literary study and progress.” Putnam immediately replied, “[y]our letter of yesterday opens a prospect more thrilling (I am frank to say) not merely for the National Capital, but for the cultural interests of this country, than anything that has happened for Washington since the establishment of the Freer Gallery.”
Putnam successfully petitioned the House Committee on the Library to alter its plans and exclude the land that the Folgers had purchased, arguing that the Folger project “would add to the prestige of the Library [of Congress] itself, and of course, the national capital.” H.R. 9355, a bill to acquire land for an additional Library of Congress building, was amended in March 1928 to exclude Grant’s Row. The bill passed into law two months later.
The Folgers could now find an architect and begin planning their monument. By the end of 1929, Grant’s Row was razed and construction was ready to begin. Architect Paul Cret suggested to Henry Folger that they salvage some of the bricks from the houses as “backing for the marble exterior,” which was to be made from white Georgia marble.
Building the team: Paul Cret (1876-1945) and Alexander Trowbridge (1868-1950)
Paul Philippe Cret was one of America’s most influential architects of the twentieth century. Born in France, he received his degree from the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1902, and then moved to the United States to join the faculty of the School of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. Soon after completing his first major commission, the Pan American Union Building on 17th St. NW (now called the Organization of American States), he enlisted in the French army and served in World War I. Upon his return to Penn in 1919, his style of “stripped classicism,” sometimes referred to as “new classicism” or “modernized classicism,” began to define him: flattened columns and bas reliefs, with simplified and abstracted features.
Cret was already a prominent architect when the Folgers decided to hire him. In making this choice, they followed the recommendation of their consulting architect, Alexander Trowbridge, who, like Cret, had trained at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Cret’s influence on DC architecture is profound: in addition to the Organization of American States building, other Cret projects in Washington, DC, include the Duke Ellington Bridge, the Federal Reserve Building, and the tower of the Bethesda Naval Medical Center.
In late 1928 and throughout 1929, the Folgers were in constant communication with Cret and Trowbridge. Trowbridge, who had already enjoyed a long career as a practicing architect, served as an advisor and liaison between the Folgers and Cret. In the letters reproduced here, the Folgers’s ideas come into focus after they viewed the first preliminary drawings. Mr. Folger writes that they envisioned “their enterprise as first of all a Library, not a Museum.” For the Folgers, the books and manuscripts that preserved and contextualized Shakespeare’s works would be the greatest picture of the man and his creations, not the collection of paintings they had assembled. They were also concerned that the preliminary sketches took the concept of “Memorial” too literary, and that the front of the building looked “a little too somber.” For them, the building should be a “testimonial.” To that end, the inscriptions and sculpture program would be critical to the building’s success as a civic enterprise, and this influenced the shape of the project.
Getting the façade right
Paul Cret and the Folgers had to work through the complex nature of the Folger project, reconciling the differences between a civic memorial, a cultural institution, and a specialized research library. Even the basic question of what name to carve on the front of the building forced the Folgers to reconsider the purpose of their collection and the audiences it would attract. At different points in the process, Cret provided renderings with “Folger Shakespeare Memorial” and “Folger Library Foundation,” but the Folgers settled on “Folger Shakespeare Library.” Shakespeare became the institution’s middle name, centered and enlarged in the carved text just below the bas reliefs.
A building for the 20th century: air conditioning, automobiles, and asbestos
The Folgers wanted the Folger Shakespeare Library to be a thoroughly modern building. However, they were not familiar with all of the latest technologies. When the possibility of including air conditioning was raised during design discussions, Henry Folger asked architect Alexander Trowbridge, “what is meant by the expression ‘Air conditioning’?” After learning more about “this apparatus,” he expressed surprise “that anyone would undertake, in a building of that size, in Washington, to secure a temperature of 85 degrees in the Summer with a 50% humidity.” Henry Folger ultimately recommended that air conditioning be installed only in the book vaults, and that the library itself close to researchers during the hottest weeks of the summer.
Noting that automobiles and street cars traveled down East Capitol Street, right in front of the Folger and other “institutions in the Nation’s capital,” the Folgers decided that the sculpture program–typically located above the horizontal pediment sitting atop the columns in a classical building–should instead be placed below the columns so that passengers could admire them from their cars.
Another innovative possibility was asbestos, a highly regarded fireproof substance that one vendor said could be shaped into panels resembling the wood of historic interiors. Mr. Folger ultimately decided to use Appalachian oak instead.