Henry and Emily Folger wanted to create a monument to Shakespeare in the capital of the United States, as their gift to the American people. Their collaboration with architect Paul Philippe Cret resulted in a building that Emily Folger later described as “The First Folio, Illustrated.”
A national landmark
The Folger is an extraordinary building, an American monument to another country’s national hero in the heart of Capitol Hill. Its modernized classical exterior and English Renaissance interior (the contrasting styles are lovingly referred to as “Tudor-deco”) earned it a place on the National Register of Historic Places in 1969. This designation was expanded in 2018 to include the original interior of the building.
As soon as it was built, the Folger became a prototype for a wide range of public buildings and monuments across America that maintained a classical spirit while simplifying, modernizing, and abstracting many of classical architecture’s most distinctive features.
Home to the world’s largest collection of Shakespeare-related books, manuscripts, art, and artifacts, the building was a collaboration between Paul Cret, a French émigré trained in the Beaux-Arts style, and Henry and Emily Folger, a New York couple who shared a lifelong passion for Shakespeare and collecting.
By locating their monument to Shakespeare and his age at the heart of civic life, the Folgers and Cret made a bold statement in marble and wood: that the wisdom of literature and history are indispensable to the life of a democracy.
Paul Philippe Cret
Paul Philippe Cret was one of America’s most influential architects of the 20th century. Born in France, he received his degree from the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1902 and then moved to the United States to join the faculty of the School of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania.
Soon after completing his first major commission, the Pan American Union Building on 17th St. NW (now called the Organization of American States), he enlisted in the French army and served in World War I.
Upon his return to Penn in 1919, his style of “stripped classicism,” sometimes referred to as “new classicism” or “modernized classicism,” began to define him: flattened columns and bas-reliefs, with simplified and abstracted features.
Cret was already a prominent architect when the Folgers decided to hire him. In making this choice, they followed the recommendation of their consulting architect, Alexander Trowbridge, who, like Cret, had trained at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.
From 1928 to 1931 the Folgers were in constant communication with Cret and Trowbridge. Trowbridge, who had already enjoyed a long career as a practicing architect, served as an advisor and liaison between the Folgers and Cret.
Cret’s influence on DC architecture is profound: in addition to the Organization of American States building, other Cret projects in Washington, DC, include the Duke Ellington Bridge, the Federal Reserve Building, and the tower of the Bethesda Naval Medical Center.
The building opening
The Washington Post published a special supplement on the day the Folger opened: April 23, 1932, the day that Shakespeare’s birthday is traditionally celebrated. The opening ceremony, carried live on national radio courtesy of NBC, was attended by President and Mrs. Hoover, as well as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
The Post called the building “a veritable marvel of cooperative genius,” noting that critics were praising its Great Hall as “beyond question one of the finest rooms in the United States.” The nature of the building as both monument and institution was of interest to many who saw the new building: “Folger Shakespeare Library fittingly takes the place among those other symbols which venerate America’s immortals, the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial,” declared The Evening Star.
For Charles Moore, Chairman of the Commission of Fine Arts, Cret’s achievement was his ability to mix different impulses: “The Folger Library Building is distinctly a work of art. The general design is rooted in the past, but it also has elements of the ‘modern’ spirit, on which time alone must pass judgement.” The style, referred to by one critic as “modernized classicism,” would go on to influence other buildings on Capitol Hill, including the Supreme Court and the Adams Building.
For Mr. and Mrs. Folger, their achievement would be more personal. Mrs. Folger described their aims in a talk she gave shortly after the Folger opened: “[w]e wished to get away from mere copying, but not away from the spirit of the best of the past.”
Cret’s skillful use of inscriptions and of sculptures, she pointed out, led to a design that was both “simple and noble”—a memorial to a great writer, but also a tribute to the couple’s favorite book. “The Library was to be the First Folio, illustrated,” she said. And in this precious book, the centerpiece of the Folger collection, two passionate collectors and their talented architects found common inspiration.
Part of a larger vision for Washington, DC
The Folger Shakespeare Library was not only an early example of the city’s modern, neoclassical vocabulary, but also a stake in its bid to become a city of culture.
This 1941 map offers a picture of things to come, as well as things that might have been. Created by the National Capital Park and Planning Commission, this development plan envisions the Folger Shakespeare Library in the middle of a east-west cultural and federal axis that stretches from the Lincoln Memorial to the banks of the Anacostia River.
Washington did not develop exactly to plan, but this forward-looking view was prophetic. Today, a trip to Washington gives visitors a glimpse into law and government, but also the opportunity to learn about the histories, cultures, arts, and ideas that make American civic life possible.
The architecture of the Folger is part of this story, mixing a classical form that recalls the sources of American government with the words and stories that continue to sustain us as modern human beings.