The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

The “Greco Deco” Folger Shakespeare Library

The About page for this blog declares that The Collation “seeks to present bite-sized glimpses of the materials found within our walls.” That’s a bit tricky at the moment: like most of the rest of the Folger staff, I haven’t had a glimpse within those walls since March 13, when we began teleworking to help slow the spread of COVID-19. The District of Columbia is now under a stay-at-home order so I can’t even glimpse the outside of those walls. A colleague who lives on Capitol Hill thoughtfully sends out reassuring photos from time to time (taken when she goes for a walk, which is one of the “Allowable Recreational Activities” in DC1).

Photo by Erin Wuebbens, from the Collection Division’s weekly staff e-newsletter, Monday, April 20, 2020.

Somehow, just knowing that the building is still where I left it is a psychological boost. It also got me to thinking about the building itself as a collection item. It’s definitely the largest piece of Shakespeareana “within our walls.” It literally is our walls, and it’s a fabulous example of Art Deco architecture. The Oxford World Encylopedia says “the art deco style is characterized by sleek forms, simplified lines, and geometric patterns.”2 Check, check, and check.

Detail of the Folger facade, showing “The Tragedie of Julius Caesar” by John Gregory. (Image from LUNA)

The National Trust Guide to Art Deco in America names Paul P. Cret, architect of the Folger Shakespeare Library, one the four architects who made “the most significant contributions to the early development of the Art Deco in the United States” and cites the Folger as the prime example of his work.3 Indeed, the Folger is the only named example of a “typical Art Deco building” in the book’s introduction. If I had to summarize it (and I did, in a grant proposal from 2004 that I just dug up) I would say that the Folger, built between 1929 and 1932, typifies Art Deco by combining inscriptions and narrative sculpture with stark geometry, by alternating solid traditional marble with modern airy aluminum, by looking to the past while embracing the future, and by doing it all in a compact, unified package.

Art Deco architecture is generally divided into three categories: zigzag, streamlined, and classical moderne. The Folger exemplifies the third category, “classical moderne,” also known as “stripped classical” or (my personal favorite) “Greco Deco”. In the words of Patricia Bayer’s international study Art Deco Architecture, the Folger’s Greco Deco-ness comes from being “a classically proportioned, clean-lined work, [that] also acknowledged the present, with its nine…bas-relief panels and cast aluminum grillework, balustrades, and windows.”4 Sixty years earlier, Paul Cret explained in American Architect that this combination of classical and modern distinguished the Folger from the “Italian precedents” of the Library of Congress and the “French precedents” of the House and Senate buildings.5 The French-born architect was keen to tout the building as a truly American building for Capitol Hill.

North front of the Folger Shakespeare Library, circa 1934. (Image from LUNA)

You can easily see the Folger’s architectural impact by looking at its next-door neighbor, the Library of Congress Annex, now known as the Adams Building. Instead of echoing the original Library of Congress building across the street, the 1939 annex took the Greco Deco Folger as a model, scaling it up to a massive size. A comparative drawing of the two buildings by annex architects Pierson & Wilson shows that this relationship with the Folger was no coincidence…. but unfortunately, I don’t have access to it while teleworking, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.

Folger Shakespeare Library and the Adams Building of the Library of Congress (with a small corner of the Jefferson Building), late 1930s. (Image from the Library of Congress)

I look forward to the day I can once again see the Folger with my own eyes. Meanwhile, I’ll have to make do with my neighborhood’s example of Paul Cret’s architecture. The Duke Ellington Bridge, built in 1935, is just two blocks from me. Like the Folger, it also features a Greco Deco combination of classical and modern motifs. I think it’s probably fair to say, though, that the sculptural program isn’t quite as timeless as the Folger’s.

South-east end of the Ellington Bridge, with bas relief representing “Automobile Transportation” by Leon Hermant. Photo by Erin Blake, April 20, 2020.
  1. Government of the District of Columbia, Mayor’s Order 2020-054, section IV.1.
  2. art deco. In World Encyclopedia. Philip’s. Retrieved 20 Apr. 2020, from https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780199546091.001.0001/acref-9780199546091-e-672.
  3. David Gebhard, The National Trust Guide to Art Deco in America. Preservation Press, 1996, page 9.
  4. Art Deco Architecture: Design, Decoration and Detail from the Twenties and Thirties (New York: Abrams, 1992).
  5. Exact citation to come once I can get back into the office.

3 Comments


  • Thank you, Erin. When I was in the reading room in years past, I noticed the librarian at the front desk would occasionally call the engineer if the humidity reading was abnormal, so the engineer could rectify the problem. Is someone still checking on such things to help preserve the rare books?

    • Yes, indeed. The Facilities and Security staff are still working on-site at the Folger, keeping the building and the collection safe, and keeping a minumum of six feet away from each other. They’re monitoring temperature and humidity, checking for water leaks, and doing essential maintenance. And in case something serious affects the collection, each member of the “Collection Disaster Recovery Team” has a letter they can show to the authorities if needed. The letter explains that this person “is responding to an emergency” in a way that is required “to support Minimum Basic Operations” persuant to the stay-at-home orders issued by DC, Maryland, and Virginia. (In the words of one staff member, “Cool! It’s so Early Modern to have to carry travel papers!”)

  • Good reading, Erin. I especially love the picture showing the Folger and Adams buildings together with a corner of the Jefferson. I cannot now reconstruct why I thought the Adams Building ugly when I first arrived here 20 years ago. I now see it as quite beautiful.


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