Skip to main content
Folger Story

The Inside View

Although the renovation work inside the Folger building is largely out of view, it’s proceeding just as vigorously as the work outdoors. Join us for a behind-the-scenes look at some of what’s been happening inside. Whether the renovation efforts are indoors or out, they all lead to the same goal: creating new, welcoming spaces for visitors, students, teachers, scholars, and staff.

If you walk by the Folger Shakespeare Library, it may seem that the renovation project is taking place in plain sight. But that’s only half the story. Gilbane Building Company and its specialist subcontractors are doing just as much inside the Folger, too. For the public, which can’t go into the building for now, says Folger Director Michael Witmore, “it’s like a play where you can only see half the stage until we complete the renovation.”

Witmore also describes what it feels like indoors. “Whole volumes of our spaces have been changed over temporarily,” says Witmore. “There’s a plywood walkway that’s been applied to the northern half of the Great Hall for the work that’s happening on the radiators; now that we’ve exposed those recesses by removing the grilles, we are replacing the radiators.” Meanwhile, he says, “the historic Reading Room is a staging area for our office furniture and files. It resembles the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, when they pull back on that long shot and the ark is going somewhere, never to be found again.” Although at the Folger, Witmore quickly adds, “we do know what’s in that room.”

In addition to installing those radiators, Gilbane is performing a vast variety of tasks inside the Folger, creating new scholarly conference rooms and work spaces and an Education Laboratory, revamping the Folger staff entrance and nearby offices, preparing for new HVAC systems, new elevators, and other new mechanical equipment, and in any number of ways upgrading, modernizing, replacing, repairing, and reconfiguring multiple aspects of the building. That being said, the biggest project by far—which is taking place both indoors and outdoors—is the creation of a new, garden-accessible floor below street level, through which visitors will enter the Folger in the future. This entry floor is like a “new modern wing,” says Witmore, and it includes “two large exhibition halls that face one another,” one under the Folger terrace outdoors and the other under the building.

A Grand New Floor

In effect, “we’re inserting a new building underneath a historic building,” says Ruth Taylor Kidd, the Folger chief financial officer. It’s an effort that requires an abundance of steps, each dependent on the others. “It’s very intricate and very sequential,” she says. “Steve Kieran, the architect, says it’s like a Swiss watch.” For this type of structural renovation, the work is “all woven together,” says Jeff Busch, the Gilbane senior general superintendent who is managing the project. “There are a lot of cross connections.”

Although the new entry floor will be below street level, there is a good reason that it does not line up with any of the Folger’s three underground floors. The Rose Exhibition Hall, which will be constructed under the building, has a high ceiling. That makes it more visually open, welcoming, and spacious—and too tall to fit onto Deck A. The solution is to take out a large section of Deck A and install the entry floor several feet below it, at an elevation about four feet above Deck B.

Because Deck A is also more extensive than Deck B, most of the Deck A section rested on the soil under the Folger building, making it somewhat simpler to remove. The rest of it, which is located above Deck B, will require some extra steps to take out. Before any of the Deck A slab could be broken up, however, months of work were needed to take out a mix of office walls, some made of drywall, but others built with concrete blocks or terracotta brick with a plaster finish. For the masonry walls, the team called in a reinforcement: a demolition robot called a Brokk, with a pneumatic hammer.

A Brokk, which travels on tracks, “is designed to fit down a standard hallway” when it is folded up, says Dustin Humbert, the Folger director of operations, who works closely with Gilbane and others on the renovation project. Once it arrived at the Deck A worksite, the Brokk unfolded “like a Transformer,” he says. “The other neat thing about a Brokk is that the person who operates it isn’t on the machine. They stand off to the side with a remote control, out of harm’s way.” As the work continued, the debris was removed by hand, Busch says, a major undertaking. “We had a train of about six to eight wheelbarrows running in and out of the building, constantly.”

Act 2 of a Five-Act Play

Once the walls and other elements were out of the way, the sheer extent of the newly cleared slab was an exciting sign of what’s to come. “I love seeing it opened up,” says Taylor Kidd. “It gives you such a sense of all of the space that’s available for these exhibition halls.” Within that space, the team used two Brokks to break up thousands of square feet of the slab, generating a huge quantity of concrete rubble. A Bobcat took all of it out through a door cut in the outer wall. The crew then removed about two feet of the soil that was under the slab; ultimately, about five and a half feet of soil will be dug out to get to the depth of the new entry floor.

Taking out the slab set some other steps in motion, including the installation of a carefully planned temporary steel support for the building’s stone facade. The next milestone will be the removal of the northern foundation wall itself, bringing together the exterior and interior excavation areas and letting the public see a little more of the indoor work space, too. Before opening the inside area to the elements, however, Gilbane walled it off from the rest of the building and installed insulation overhead, keeping the rest of the Folger climate-controlled—and quieter, too.

With so much accomplished, and so much more to do in building the entry floor, where do things stand? “We are in Act 2 of a five-act play,” Witmore says. “And that is where you build the momentum and you set up what is going to be solved later in the play. The demolition that’s happened and the supporting of the facade, these are some of the moves that let you see how these spaces will come together” in the subsequent acts of the show.

A Capitol Connection

Meanwhile, a simple and quite different renovation task took place this spring in the West Lobby on the Folger’s historic first floor. When the Folger opened in 1932, the lobby had a side exit, an internal stone stairway that led to the circular dive. At the base of the stairs, a glass door with a tall transom offered a view of the Library of Congress and the US Capitol dome.

“Those steps were an important feature of the Paul Cret design,” says Witmore. “If you look at the evolution of the design of the building, as Cret worked with Mr. and Mrs. Folger, he couldn’t decide whether this building should be entered from the side or head-on from the Capitol. I think that carriage entry is a kind of vestige of his thinking, and he found a beautiful way to make it architectural. I would say that it was there to visually communicate with the US Capitol and the Library of Congress. We are our own place, but we have a significant connection to the civic life of the capital.” As if to make the point, a photo from the Folger’s opening shows President Herbert Hoover walking out of this entrance, escorted by George Plimpton, chairman of the Amherst trustees.

Herbert Hoover exiting Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C. Harris & Ewing, photographer. 1932. Library of Congress.

As time passed, however, the lobby took on many functions that vied for space, from the guard desk to the Folger shop to a desk for docents who welcomed visitors. Decades ago, the door was sealed and a carpeted wooden floor was placed over the stairs, adding floor space to the room. The transom, which was still visible, served as a picture window in the shop.

That has now changed. Since visitors will enter the Folger through the garden-accessible floor below, the functions assigned to the West Lobby have moved elsewhere. The construction team has already removed the floor and reopened the stairs, although the door will still be sealed. The stairwell and the combination of the transom and glass door “bring light and openness,” into the lobby, Taylor Kidd says. “It was an area that always had people coming and going. Now, it’s a place to pause and take in the view, to stop and appreciate Cret’s architecture.”

Before (left), with the floor in place, and after (right), with the stairs reopened and the glass door uncovered. Photos (l to r): David Huff; Lloyd Wolf.

A Grace Note from Paul Cret

Before removing the floor, however, the team found a surprise. As they shifted one of the shop’s built-in bookcases, they discovered that the wall behind it included a large, handsome grille with a stone frame around it. (The sill has a chip in it, damage that must have occurred many years ago.) The grillwork covers an HVAC return—a duct through which air flows out of a room—and it has a charming fleur-de-lis pattern.

Photo by Lloyd Wolf

Once hidden by a book shelf, this fleur-de-lis grille is near the combined glass door and transom; from this angle, you can see the Library of Congress dome. 

“Ruth Taylor Kidd emailed me a picture and said, Look what we found,” says Witmore. “It was really wonderful.”

The fleur-de-lis design, he says, is another reminder of the beauty of the historic Folger building—the architectural backdrop to the renovation project. “It’s a grace note on the design, a lovely touch,” he says. “And it reminded me that Paul Cret paid attention to everything. Of course we would find a beautiful, well-designed grating behind the book shelf, because that’s the way he works.”

>> Learn more about the extensive outdoor work to date on the project in our previous renovation progress update, Excavating the Folger’s Future.

Lead photo by Lloyd Wolf.