Our building and grounds
The Folger Shakespeare Library, designed by Paul Philippe Cret, was dedicated in 1932 and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Reopening Friday, June 21, 2024
Our building opens later this year after a major renovation. Discover what you can do then
About our building
Located a block from the US Capitol, the Folger Shakespeare Library is an Elizabethan monument with a neoclassical exterior.
On the outside, its white Georgia 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.
Continue reading to learn more about the building spaces and distinctive features, both old and new.
Built like the great hall of an Elizabethan house, the 131-foot Reading Room incorporates 16th- and 17th-century French and Flemish tapestries, carved oak paneling, a high trussed roof, and a large fireplace.
On the hall screen at the east end hang portraits of the Folgers in their academic robes, painted by the British artist Frank O. Salisbury. Above the Salisbury portraits is a bust of Shakespeare based on his memorial in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon. The ashes of both Folgers are immured behind a memorial plaque.
Seven Ages of Man window
At the west end of the Reading Room is one of the Folger’s treasures, a large stained-glass window depicting the Seven Ages of Man from Jaques’s speech in As You Like It.
This window is by the Philadelphia stained-glass studio of Nicola d’Ascenzo (1871–1954) and is modeled after the stone tracery of the window after the apse window of Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church.
Although the window is exposed to exterior sunlight, it is in an interior space and is not visible from outside the building.
The intimate Elizabethan Theatre is the setting for Folger Theatre productions, early music concerts by the Folger Consort, O.B. Hardison Poetry programs, family activities, and many education programs, including the Folger’s student festivals.
With its three-tiered wooden balconies, carved oak columns, and half-timbered facade, the Theatre evokes the courtyard of an English Renaissance inn. Overhead, a canopy represents the sky. In Shakespeare’s day, such inns sometimes served as playhouses for traveling groups of players, who performed on a raised platform at one end while spectators gathered in the yard and on the balconies above.
As part of the building renovation, the Great Hall is transforming from an exhibition space to a public gathering place.
The Great Hall evokes the gallery of a 16th-century house with its soaring plaster strapwork ceiling and oak-paneled walls. The terracotta floor incorporates masks of Comedy and Tragedy as well as the titles of Shakespeare’s plays. There is also a white marble memorial bust of Henry Folger produced by John Gregory, the same artist who created the Folger’s exterior bas-reliefs.
The shield and great eagle of the United States grace the west end of the hall, nearest the Capitol. The coat of arms of Elizabeth I, Shakespeare’s queen, represents Great Britain at the east end. Each heraldic device is accompanied by a quotation from a theatrical giant—respectively, the American drama critic William Winter and the British thespian David Garrick.
The building renovation is adding two new, large exhibition halls, anchoring the Adams Pavilion.
Shakespeare Exhibition Hall
The First Folio Gallery displays the books at the heart of our Shakespeare collection: all 82 of the Folger’s First Folios. Located nearby is a printing press modeled on ones that printed this 1623 collection of Shakespeare’s plays.
Many rarely seen items from the Folger collection will be on exhibit, including Henry VIII’s schoolbook; the Pavier Quartos; and artifacts from actor Earle Hyman, who played Hamlet in a groundbreaking production at DC’s Howard University in 1951.
Visitors are invited to try their hand at setting type as it happened in a 1623 print shop and work with friends to create a Shakespearean conversation. Families with younger Shakespeare sleuths can follow clues along their own path through the exhibits.
Stuart and Mimi Rose Rare Book and Manuscript Exhibition Hall
The Stuart and Mimi Rose Rare Book and Manuscript Exhibition Hall is a space where the Folger collection can be displayed in many configurations, including showstopping encounters with collection items and opportunities to explore the vast range of subjects covered by books in the Folger vaults.
A dedicated gallery will host a range of changing exhibitions—beginning with a stunning display of books and other objects from the extraordinary collection of Stuart Rose. Highlights from the Rose collection will present literary and historical pieces that have been rarely displayed in public, creating a special opportunity to see rare books and manuscripts that must be seen and experienced.
Gardens and landscaping
Visitors enter the Folger through fully accessible gardens filled with both native plants and plants mentioned by Shakespeare.
Benches and paths invite visitors to relax, as do open green spaces and shade trees, including a heritage magnolia tree planted at the time of the Folger’s 1932 opening.
Inscriptions include a Folger-commissioned poem by US Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize-winner Rita Dove welcoming visitors to the Folger.
A Juliet balcony overlooks the east entrance, while an aluminum replica of Brenda Putnam’s Puck statue returns to greet visitors in a new fountain in the west entry garden.
The learning lab is the Folger’s new center for all kinds of learning by all kinds of learners: investigate some of our collection items up close, join with other families to have fun with Shakespeare, take part in summer camp sessions, participate in special sessions for teachers and students, participate in community play readings, develop poetry, playwriting, and songwriting, enjoy lively seminars, and attend demonstrations and workshops for adults led by world-class materials researchers and artists.
New learning opportunities abound, many of them extensions of our exhibitions, research, conservation, programming, performance, and education work.
The Folger building is well known for the Shakespeare bas-reliefs along its north façade, created by the New York sculptor John Gregory (1879–1958).
By convention, this artwork would ordinarily have been positioned much higher, near the top of the building; the Folgers asked for the placement near street level to give the public a better view.
For an in-depth look at the bas-reliefs, explore artist Paul Glenshaw’s blog series, Drawing Shakespeare.
The Folger has commissioned work from three contemporary artists:
- US Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize-winner Rita Dove has written a new poem that will welcome visitors into the west gardens.
- Renowned artist Fred Wilson, known for reframing cultural symbols that encourage viewers to reconsider social, racial, and historical narratives, is creating a piece to be displayed in conversation with the Folger’s 1579 “Sieve” portrait of Queen Elizabeth I.
- Innovative artist Anke Neuman, whose installations are created from artisan-made paper that includes optic fibers, has created a paper light sculpture to hang in the stairwell connecting the new east entrance lobby and the historic theater lobby.
New Artwork Illuminates the Renovation
A floating paper sculpture by Anke Neumann lights the stairs from the new visitor lobby to the historic theater above.
A New Poem by Rita Dove Invites Visitors Inside
Rita Dove shares the story behind her new poem, which is inscribed in the marble edge around the Folger’s west garden.
The Folger Shakespeare Library is filled with inscriptions of quotations by and about Shakespeare. See the text of inscriptions, to whom they are attributed, and their location outside or inside the Folger building.
On the front of the building
This therefore is the praise of Shakespeare
That his drama is the mirrour of life.
His wit can no more lie hid,
Then it could be lost.
Reade hime, therefore; and againe, and againe.
JOHN HEMINGE : HENRIE CONDELL
Thou art a monument, without a tombe,
And art alive still, while thy books doth live,
And we have wits to read, and praise to give.
On the west side of the building
For Wisdomes sake, a word that all men love.
LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST
On the fountain
Lord, what fools these mortals be!
A MIDSOMMER NIGHTS DREAME
West vestibule, over the door to the Great Hall
I shower a welcome on ye; welcome all.
SHAKESPEARE, Henry VIII, Act 1, Sc. 4
West vestibule, over the entrance to the west corridor
What needs my Shakespeare for his honor’d bones
The labor of an age in piled stones?
Thou in our wonder and astonishment
Hast built thyself a live-long monument.
Over the door, west end of Great Hall
There is not anything of human trial
That ever love deplored or sorrow knew,
No glad fulfilment and no sad denial,
Beyond the pictured truth that Shakespeare drew.
Over the door, east end of Great Hall
Thrice happy the nation that Shakespeare has charm’d
More happy the bosoms his genius has warm’d!
Ye children of nature, of fashion, and whim,
He painted you all, all join to praise him.
In the Reading Room, at the west end
I do not remember
That any book or
Person or event ever
Produced so great
An effect on me as
Shakespeare is fertility,
Force, exuberance, no
Reticence, no binding,
No economy, the
Inordinate and tranquil
Prodigality of the creator.
In the Reading Room, over the fireplace
England’s genius filled all measure
Of heart and soul, of strength and pleasure,
Gave to the mind its emperor,
And life was larger than before:
Nor sequent centuries could hit
Orbit and sum of Shakespeare’s wit.
The men who lived with him became
Poets, for the air was fame.
RALPH WALDO EMERSON
At the east end of the Reading Room
There is a replica of the Memorial to Shakespeare in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon. The inscription on the tablet below the bust, as in the original at Stratford, reads:
Indicio Pylium, genio Socraten, arto Maronem,
Terra tegit, populus maeret, Olympus habet.
Pylius for his judgement, Socrates for his intellects, Maro for his poetry–
The earth covers him, the people mourn him, Olympus holds him.
Stay, Passenger, why goest thou by so fast?
Read if thou canst, whom envious death hast plast,
Within this monument: Shakespeare: with whome,
Quick Nature dide: whose name, doth deck ys Tombe,
Far more, than cost: sich all yt He hast writt,
Leaves living art, but page, to serve his witt.
Obiit ano Doi 1616
A tatis. 53 Die 23 Aps.