Library of Congress shelves plan to add oculus to Main Reading Room

A controversial change proposed as part of a plan to make the Library of Congress more accessible and exciting to tourists is being shelved.

The idea was to add a circular glass window called an oculus to the floor of the Main Reading Room in the library’s Thomas Jefferson Building, in the same area as the iconic central circulation desk. The goal was to allow visitors to look up through the oculus at the Main Reading Room’s beautiful dome, from a new orientation center to be built below the room.

However, library spokesman Brett Zongker said the plan for the oculus has been dropped.

“We are making a change due to cost escalations and a suboptimal design that has emerged from the design process,” Zongker told WTOP in an email.

In a Nov. 14 letter to Congress, Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden said several necessary changes made during the design process, including the addition of fire safety equipment, meant the size of the proposed oculus could only be 16 feet in diameter, instead of the originally planned 24 feet. That, along with a significant increase in cost and construction time, led the Library to make the “difficult decision” to drop the plan for the oculus.

The library is still moving forward with plans for an orientation center and other new additions, and is on track to meet its goal of raising $20 million in private funding for it in fiscal year 2023.

The overall plan, unveiled in 2019, drew sharp criticism from some.

The DC Preservation League placed the Main Reading Room at the top of its 2022 list of Most Endangered Places, saying the change would “eviscerate the central character-defining feature” of the room.

Even with the oculus out of the picture, the league said it has “grave concerns” about the remainder of the plan to transform parts of the library.

The Society of Architectural Historians Heritage Conservation Committee also opposed the oculus, writing in a Sept. 8 letter to Hayden: “The proposed project seeks to radically and irreparably damage the design and function of the Reading Room.”

“We call upon Congress, the Architect of the Capitol, and the American public to oppose these alterations, which will destroy the heart of a building designed for everyone,” the society said.

Michelle Basch

Michelle Basch is a reporter turned morning anchor at WTOP News.

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