Bibliophilia and Art Mania in the Capital–Grand Day for Libraries and Galleries

Friday, Mar 17, 2017: Washington

A Day for Bibliophilia:

Museums, yes. Art galleries, of course. Famous buildings and private residences, certainly. But libraries? Since when do folks put the visiting of libraries on their tourist itineraries? Well, they do so if they are the Almeidas. Because books are our passion, touring spaces devoted exclusively to them and getting into the minds of fellow-bibliophiles, is something we have done for years. Among the many gems we have uncovered through our travels: The Long Library at Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland; The Coimbra University Library in Portugal; The Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. And on this trip, it would be the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Library of Congress we would peruse. Boy, were we excited!

Breakfast at Marian’s:

But first….it was to be a breakfast to remember at our friend Marian’s place. Married to a South Indian named Anand, Marian has grown into something on an expert on the making of idlis—soft rice cakes eaten with a lentil stew called sambar.  For us, it is a rare treat, eaten perhaps once a year on a trip to India. So, imagine our delight on awaking to find that Marian had steamed the rice cakes for us, heated up the sambhar and laid the table in her kitchen for our eating pleasure. Washed down with good coffee, it was a great start to our day. A quick shower later, we were piling into her car and she was dropping us off to her metro station so that we could start our exploration of the day.

At the Folger Shakespeare Library:

It was a bitterly cold morning. In fact, Llew and I laughed at the irony of the fact that we had wished to escape the cold of Connecticut by taking a trip “someplace warmer” during my Spring Break, only to land ourselves in a place six hours south of us that was colder than our home base of Southport. Oh well…as they say, you can change many things, but never the weather. Indeed, it had been a freezing week overall. Thankfully, the capital had some of the best indoor attractions in the world and we were kept toasty on our travels.

The metro dropped us off on Capitol Hill (Capital South) and a short walk later, we found ourselves facing the marble-clad building of the Folger Shakespeare Library which, on the outside, resembles any one of the Neo-Classical buildings that Pierre L’Enfant envisioned when he designed Washington DC. We made our way up the short flight of stairs to the main entrance and then, lo and behold, we were whisked back to Tudor England! Can you imagine my delight???

Once we cleared security, we were at the Main information Desk where we were informed that guided tours were given a few times a day. There was one starting in just ten minutes, so off we went. A volunteer docent gave a handful of visitors an introduction to the collection. How did the library come into being? What does it represent? It would be easiest for me to quote directly from the library’s website to make sure I get all the facts right. Here they are:

The Folger Shakespeare Library’s founders, Henry Clay Folger and his wife Emily Jordan Folger, established the Folger in 1932 as a gift to the American people. Emily Folger later wrote of Henry Folger’s belief that “the poet is one of our best sources, one of the wells from which we Americans draw our national thought, our faith and our hope.” This belief in the deep connection between Shakespeare and America is the reason the Folger is located in the nation’s capital. Throughout a long career in the oil industry, Henry Folger, with his wife’s assistance, built the world’s largest collection of Shakespeare materials. Together, Henry and Emily Folger then planned the library that would house their collection.
After it opened in 1932, the Folger steadily expanded its holdings to become a world-class research center on the early modern age in the West, while remaining the premier center for Shakespeare studies and resources outside of England. Its public outreach programs, beginning in the library’s early decades with exhibitions, lectures, and publications, have also grown over time.

The Folger collection began in 1889 with Henry Folger’s first purchase of a rare book. Already fascinated by Shakespeare, he paid $107.50 for a copy of the 1685 Fourth Folio of the plays. Folger and his wife Emily Jordan Folger spent decades gathering the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, broadly defined to include Shakespeare’s era as well.

As Henry continued to work full-time as an oil company executive, Emily tracked the growing collection and flagged possible purchases. When the complete collection was transported to the Folger Shakespeare Library before the library’s 1932 opening, it came to an astonishing 200,000 items in 2,109 packing cases.

In 1938, the library gained a new strength in English printed books with the purchase of most of the private library of the late Sir Leicester Harmsworth, which came to about 10,000 books, including small, later purchases from the estate. After the war, from 1948 to 1968, Folger Director Louis B. Wright added substantial materials from the Renaissance in Europe, acquiring 22,000 continental books and 19,000 more English books. That growth continues to this day, with new acquisitions which build on the collection’s existing strengths.

The guide took us first to the Tudor Main Hall. Believe me, you could have been in any one of the grand Elizabethan manors in England such as Hatfield House or Knole House—it was that authentic. Paneled in dark-wood with a huge brick fireplace as its focal point and a vast library (Reading) table surroudned by chairs in the center, the room is grand in its proportions. Since light comes from small stained-glass window, the room is on the darker side, but no matter. This aspect adds to the ambience. She began by giving us a brief history of the building. Once again, I shall quote from the library’s website in order to get my facts straight:

When one thinks of the treasures of the Folger Shakespeare Library, books and manuscripts and artwork immediately come to mind. But for many, the library’s national landmark building—designed by Paul Philippe Cret (1876–1945)—is a high point.

Located a block from the US Capitol, the Folger Shakespeare Library is an Elizabethan monument with a neoclassical exterior. On the outside, its white marble harmonizes with nearby buildings, such as the Library of Congress, the Capitol, and the Supreme Court. Inside, the design evokes Tudor England, with oak paneling, ornamental floor tile, and high plaster ceilings. The Folger building is best known for the Shakespeare bas-reliefs along its north façade.

The building is extensively ornamented with inscriptions of quotations by and about Shakespeare. Quotations were often used to adorn English great houses of Shakespeare’s day, and are an essential part of the Folger’s architecture. Henry Folger personally selected the inscriptions that may be found throughout the interior, the exterior, and the grounds. It was his wish that any texts taken from the 1623 First Folio of Shakespeare should be spelled as they appear there, rather than in the modern style.
The chief architect for the Folger Shakespeare Library was Paul Philippe Cret, a well-known Philadelphia architect and French emigré who had trained in the Beaux Arts tradition in Paris. Some of his previous projects included the Pan American Union in Washington and the Detroit Institute of Arts. Washington architect Alexander Trowbridge was the consulting architect for the project.
The Folger Shakespeare Library was dedicated in 1932 and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

The Tudor Hall had two Tudor paintings on the wall—one of Queen Elizabeth I in her younger days (although the white-painted face is in evidence) and another of an Elizabethan worthy whose name I did not catch. The walls are surrounded by glass cases in which a huge collection of ceramic Shakespearean busts and statues abound together with ceramic portraiture of the many characters the Bard created. In the center of the main table, there was a facsimile copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio of 1623 and in a glass case, taking pride of place in the room was the real thing—a Fourth Folio, Henry Folger’s proudest acquisition.  There were many questions asked by visitors which included a grad student, a high school teacher of English and a professor (moi)—which left me wondering whether most of the traffic that this building sees are those involved in education.

After spending quite a long time in the Tudor Main Hall (which set the tone quite beautifully for the rest of our visit), we trooped into what looked like a Long Gallery (a frequent feature of Elizabethan aristocratic homes in England or Scotland). This was filled with valuable works from Corpus Christi College, Oxford, that included a Greek Bible, splendid illuminated manuscripts from the medieval period and other landmark publications from the Renaissance. Founded exactly five hundred years ago in 1517, the College quickly acquired a significant collection under the leadership of its founder, Richard Fox. Llew and I spent a while browsing through some of the main works and eventually were permitted a peak into the Main Reading Room as this room is out of bounds to visitors. It is a long and very ornate room constructed in two tiers and lined everywhere the eye descends, by books. We saw several scholars working on their research materials. Readership is select and scholars are meant to apply for scholarships which grant them residence reader rights for short or long terms. It was all very impressive indeed.

Viewing the Folger Shakespeare Theater:

However, much as the Tudor rooms were fascinating, it was the Theater that was the piece de resistance of our tour—understandably, it was kept for last. This time we could go inside and take our seats on the very chairs that the audience would occupy during one of the many performances that are presented year-round. These include Shakespearean works as well as those by his contemporaries and by modern-day playwrights who have taken their inspiration from the Bard. We enjoyed feasting our eyes on the wooden-clad theater that is based entirely on the design of the Globe Theater in London. There are three gallery levels that look down upon a wooden stage which is exactly as you would have seen it in Shakespeare’s day except that it is not open to the sky. We were enchanted. Furthermore, the guide told us that the Folger Shakespeare Library is the venue of the Pen/Faulker Award—judges meet here and the award ceremony takes place here. It was especially significant for Llew whose personal collection of hard bound first editions (often signed by their authors) includes each year’s winners of the Pen-Faulkner Award.

After what had been a thrilling tour in many respects, we left the library and crossed the street to find ourselves in the magnificent Library of Congress.

Touring the Library of Congress:

The Library of Congress Building is quite plainly the most glorious building in the Capital. Both inside and out, it dazzles. Clad in Neo-Classical marble, it had wide steps that give main entry into the building. Once security in cleared, you find yourself in a space that is simply spectacular. Words cannot convey the initial impression that the interior décor makes on the viewer. It truly has to be seen to be believed. Suffice it to say that we joined a guided tour which had masses of people in attendance, were treated to a brief film in the Visitors’ Room that introduced us to the library and its collection and then were walked through the Main Hall and taken into the sanctum sanctorum, the actual Reading Room itself.

So here is a brief account of this library from its website:

The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world, with millions of books, recordings, photographs, newspapers, maps and manuscripts in its collections. The Library is the main research arm of the U.S. Congress and the home of the U.S. Copyright Office. The Library preserves and provides access to a rich, diverse and enduring source of knowledge to inform, inspire and engage you in your intellectual and creative endeavors.

As in the case of the Bodleian and Fitzwilliam libraries in Oxford and Cambridge Universities in  England respectively that receive one copy of every book ever published in the UK, so too, the Library of Congress receives a copy of every book every published in the USA. This means, of course, that my book on The Politics of Mourning is at the Library of Congress and when I looked up their Search Catalog, I did find that they have two copies of it, much to my delight! My other book on Global Secularisms in a Post-Secular Age is also in the Library! Of course, every book published in the USA also receives a catalog number from the Library of Congress.

I took a lot of pictures during our tour as I simply could not get enough of the opulence of this building. It has everything you can imagine in Baroque interior design: pillars, cupolas, domes, marble staircases, stained glass windows, wrought-iron ornamentation, thick carvings in wood and stone…indeed, the décor beggars description.

The guide took us around to the most important elements of the collection from the Gutenburg Bible to the Main Reading Room which we could view from several stories up. Anyone can get a Reader’s Card for the Library of Congress provided you can submit two pieces of identity. It is a handy Washington DC souvenir—although we were discouraged unless we really meant business—and business, in this case, involves doing research in-house as it is not a lending library—merely one from which one can temporarily borrow materials for reading on the premises. The Library is also a record-keeper for the nation and people come there to do all sorts of archival research relating to family histories, land rights, etc.

Our view of the Main Reading Room was simply astounding. I had thought, a few months ago, while doing research in the Radcliff Camera of the Bodleian Library in Oxford that it would be impossible for me to focus on my reading when I was surrounded by so much grandeur. But the Radcliff Camera, despite its extraordinary Baroque interior pales in comparison to the Library of Congress with its vast number of bronze sculptures of writers and scholars that ring the Rotunda and the magnificence of its dome—for like all the great domes of the world (St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, Brunelleschi’s Duomo in Florence, for instance) this is simply arresting. Grecian architectural elements combine with Renaissance Baroque ornamentation to create a space that must be overwhelmingly thrilling to the scholar fortunate enough to have the opportunity to study here.

When the tour ended, we made our way to two exhibits that we were told not to miss: one was a map of the world in the time of Amerigo Vespucci who named America soon after its ‘discovery’ by Columbus. This huge engraving sits in two vast show cases and occupies an entire section of the building. It is accompanied by other contemporary documents such as a printed version of the journal of Christopher Columbus (in Italian) that he penned as he made his crossing of the Atlantic for the first time in 1492. (I had seen the original—the actual journal itself– in the Columbus Museum in Barcelona, Spain). I took a lot of pictures.

Finally, we ended our tour of the Library of Congress by taking in the personal library of Thomas Jefferson, President of the US, after whom this building of the library is named. Here, from the website, is information pertaining to how Thomas Jefferson’s personal collection of books came to be in the Library of Congress:

Throughout his life, books were vital to Thomas Jefferson’s education and well-being. When his family home Shadwell burned in 1770 Jefferson most lamented the loss of his books. In the midst of the American Revolution and while United States minister to France in the 1780s, Jefferson acquired thousands of books for his library at Monticello. Jefferson’s library went through several stages, but it was always critically important to him. Books provided the little traveled Jefferson with a broader knowledge of the contemporary and ancient worlds than most contemporaries of broader personal experience. By 1814 when the British burned the nation’s Capitol and the Library of Congress, Jefferson had acquired the largest personal collection of books in the United States. Jefferson offered to sell his library to Congress as a replacement for the collection destroyed by the British during the War of 1812. Congress purchased Jefferson’s library for $23,950 in 1815. A second fire on Christmas Eve of 1851, destroyed nearly two thirds of the 6,487 volumes Congress had purchased from Jefferson.

Through a generous grant from Jerry and Gene Jones, the Library of Congress is attempting to reassemble Jefferson’s library as it was sold to Congress. Although the broad scope of Jefferson’s library was a cause for criticism of the purchase, Jefferson extolled the virtue of its broad sweep and established the principle of acquisition for the Library of Congress: “there is in fact no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.” Proclaiming that “I cannot live without books,” Jefferson began a second collection of several thousand books, which was sold at auction in 1829 to help satisfy his creditors.

What remains of Jefferson’s Library looks small, but it is beautifully displayed in a semi-circle made up of glass cases. Color-coded bookmarks let you know if the book was an original from his library or whether it was a later replacement copy of a book he originally possessed. Occasionally you will find dummy cardboard boxes with the names of books printed on them. These signify books that were in the original collection but which have yet to be found and added to it. It was all quite fascinating indeed and we had a grand time. We found every second fully rewarding.

Lunch at Eastern Market:

We could have stayed at the Library of Congress forever; but then, there is only a small limit to our stamina. Our tummies beckoned and we decided to go to ‘Eastern Market’ which every guide book suggests in a Must-See venue in Washington. It happens to be a covered market (similar to the one outside Faneuil Hall in Boston) with vendors selling mainly food products: fresh produce, deli meats, etc. There is a butcher, a spice dealer—that sort of thing. On the weekends, the market comes into its own with a flea market developing outside on the sidewalk. Tourists flock there to buy everything from cheap souvenir trinkets  to hearty breakfast sandwiches.

We were looking out for lunch and, to our delight, we found the perfect place at the end of the market, in a stall that offered seats to appease our hunger. Since we were in Maryland and had not yet partaken of its best-known dish—Maryland Crab Cakes–we selected those. Placed within burger buns, they made the most perfect sandwich lunch you can imagine. Tartar sauce, lettuce and tomato filled our burger and proved to be the best accompaniments to the most succulent crab cakes I can recall eating. Although there was nothing to rave about in terms of ambience or atmosphere, we had seen the famed Eastern Market and had ourselves one of the more memorable lunches of our visit.

An Afternoon at the National Portrait Gallery and the National Museum of American Art:

On reading through our guide books, I discovered the existence of the National Portrait Gallery. Knowing the National Portrait Gallery in London almost like the back of my hands, I felt slightly ashamed that I had never been to the same institution in my own country! Hence, a visit to this venue was definitely on the cards for us.

Lunch done, we took the metro and made our way to the National Portrait Gallery. Housed in a grand Greek Revival building, away from the Mall where most of the Smithsonian’s museums are located, it is one of the oldest structures in the city. Once we were inside the building, we discovered that it is, in fact, two museums—for it houses the National Portrait Collection as well as the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art. Joining the two separate ‘wings’ of the museum with its two separate collections is the handiwork of the contemporary British architecture, Norman Foster, who designed the undulating, wavy, glass ceiling that, at first glance, reminds you of the Great Courtyard of the British Museum in London. And indeed, you would not be mistaken for Foster designed that as well. Known as the Kogod Courtyard, it provides an all-weather canopy from the elements for visitors to the museum and a fine meetings place for a drink or a bite. We crossed the courtyard as we took in the highlights of the collection (easily accessible for visitors with paucity of time) through a handy leaflet that enumerates the must-see items.

Highlights of the Collection:

We went on to see paintings from Andrew Wyeth, Edward Hopper, a portrait of Pocahontas in Elizabethan garb, of an Indian named Sequoia, a sculpture called The Vine, landscapes by Asher Durand of the Hudson River School and Albert Bierstadt of the prairie landscape and a portrait of four of our current female sitting justices of the Supreme Court. On the top floor, in the Grand Hall (itself a fabulous architectural achievement), we saw magnificent contemporary portraits of Michael Jackson, Toni Morrison, Bill and Melissa Gates, dozens of sporting figures such as Mohammed Ali, Babe Ruth, etc.

For Llew and me, however, the piece de resistance was a portrait of Katherine Hepburn that was placed on a wall just behind a glass case that contains all four of her Best-Actress Award Oscar trophies—for Hepburn is still the record-holder with the most number of Oscars in the Best Actress category (yes, even more than Meryl Streep!)! That was the closest Llew had ever come to an Oscar and he was thrilled. I had seen an Oscar for the first time, eight years ago, in a maritime museum called the Kon-Tiki Museum in Bygdoy in Norway, right outside Oslo, where the Oscar for the Best Documentary based on a film that recounted the trans-Atlantic voyage of Thor Heyerdahl on a raft (if you can believe it!) sits in a similar glass case—also donated to the museum by the film’s director. Naturally, we took a picture of Hepburn’s Oscars and then continued on our perusal. There was also a very interesting take on the iconic painting called “Washington Crossing the Delaware” by Emmanuel Leutze which hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Well, the Japanese-American artist Roger Shimomura has created a revision of this painting with a marvelous canvas that presents himself in the guise of George Washington. He titles his painting “An American Knock-Off”. I thought it was all quite astonishing indeed. Seriously, it is difficult for me to put into words the amount of sterling art we saw in these two museums including Gilbert Stewart’s portrait of George Washington.

Dinner in McLean:

But with the museum closing and darkness soon to fall upon Washington—and our stamina levels running pretty low—we decided to call a halt to our sightseeing and take the metro back to McLean. A text to Marian brought her to the metro station where she picked us up and took us back to her home. Well settled with drinks, we nattered on until she got dinner organized for us. In fact, Marian took loads of trouble putting on an Indian feast before us: it was to be an evening of Indian chaat which is North Indian street food. She made ragda pattice (a potato patty smothered with a spicy stew of chickpeas and onions) and bhel puri (a mixture of puffed rice, onions, potatoes, a spicy snack called sev and a variety of hot chilli and sweet date chutneys that makes the entire concoction tongue-tingling). Marian also served us delicious paneer or Indian cottage cheese. Since it was a Friday in Lent, both Llew and I were off meat—hence, it helped to have found crab cakes and a wonderful Indian vegetarian meal at Marian’s for dinner. Best of all, we enjoyed quality time with Marian as we reminisced about old times in Bombay (where we were both born and raised) and in New York (where we both arrived at the same time as new immigrants almost thirty years ago). It was a sheer delight to look back on our lives and although we missed Anand, her husband, who was in India, Marian was the perfect hostess.

We fell asleep deep fulfilled about the thrilling variety that the day had offered.


Until tomorrow, see ya…