The Madison Building is an unusual combination of a national shrine contained in a working building serving both as the Library's third major structure and as this nation's official memorial to President James Madison.
In 1957, the Librarian of Congress, Quincy Mumford, initiated studies for a third library building to ease overcrowding. Congress appropriated planning funds for that structure in 1960. In an unrelated move that same year, Congress established a commission to create a national memorial for James Madison, Father of the Constitution and fourth President of the United States. Soon the goals of both ventures were merged when it was decided to construct the latest library building as a memorial to Madison. It was deemed particularly appropriate because his achievements seemed to lie in the area of intellectual pursuits.
Construction of the James Madison Memorial Building of the Library of Congress was approved on October 19, 1965, with an appropriation of $75 million. Excavation and foundation work began in June 1971, and work on the superstructure was completed in 1976. The cornerstone was laid on March 8, 1974. Dedication ceremonies were held on April 24, 1980, and the building opened on May 28, 1980.
The Madison Building was designed by the firm of DeWitt, Poor & Shelton, which had previously designed the east extension of the Capitol that was built in 1958-1962. With its tall colonnade of unadorned piers the design attempted to capture the spirit of classical architecture while remaining faithful to the canons of modern innovation. Critics have generally not been impressed, and usually deride the building as a cold, graceless, hard-edged box. All can agree, however, that it is commodious: it is 500 feet wide and 400 feet deep containing 2,100,000 gross square feet and 1,500,000 feet of assignable space. A bronze sculptural screen, A Cascade of Books, rises five stories above the main entrance.
It is one of the three largest public buildings in the Washington area; the Pentagon and F.B.I. Building are the others. With so much space, the library was able to relieve overcrowding in the Jefferson and Adams Buildings, which allowed them to be restored, rehabilitated and modernized.
The Architect of the Capitol was in charge of construction under the direction of the Senate and House Building Commissions and the Joint Committee on the Library. A committee appointed by the American Institute of Architects played an advisory role. Plans for the Madison Memorial Hall were developed in consultation with the James Madison Memorial Commission.