The Library of Congress is impressive in its grandiosity, but a subtler piece of the building’s architecture is perhaps even more striking.
On a sticky July afternoon, The Court of Neptune Fountain serves as a destination in itself at the base of the steps to the Thomas Jefferson Building.
Children pose for their parents’ cameras, and a woman perches on the fountain’s wall, one leg dangling over either side of the ledge and her eyes skimming the dozen bronze figures in the fountain.
On either side of the 50-foot basin is a bronze figure of a nude woman on horseback riding as though into battle.
King Neptune, Roman god of the sea, sits between them, a monstrous bronze figure that would be 12 feet tall if he were standing upright. He is seated atop a bank of rocks, nude and emanating energy, with muscles and veins rippling his skin and jets of water springing up behind him.
Neptune’s arms and legs are thick, almost anchored to his throne, and his face is steely, with eyes cast downward and mouth agape. He is flanked by two smaller men, each standing in the water and blasting conch shells.
Despite its grandeur, the Court of Neptune Fountain’s creator was only 28 years old when he completed the piece in 1898, according to literature from the Architect of the Capitol.
New York sculptor Roland Hinton Perry had just finished studying in France and had hopes of creating a mural for the newly built Library of Congress. Having already constructed a set of relief medallions for the library’s entrance pavilion, Perry was commissioned to erect a fountain for the building’s exterior in 1897. He completed the fountain one year later.
“At the time, the fountain was almost as novel as the electric light that illuminated the building,” said Ford Peatross, director of the library’s Center for Architecture, Design and Engineering. “A monumental bronze fountain with a very complicated composition as an enlivening feature was a very smart thing to do … The whole building is saying that America has arrived culturally, and we can do it as well as Europe does.”
When it came to selecting a scene to depict, the choice for Perry was quite clear. Fountains in ancient and Western art traditionally feature a river god or sea god, Peatross explained.
Indeed, since the Library of Congress was built, Minerva, goddess of wisdom and learning, has been said to watch over the entire campus. Yet while representations of Minerva are dispersed throughout the interior of the building, her uncle Neptune presides over the fountain, helping his niece protect her territory, Peatross explained.
In addition to the literal scene it sets, the fountain serves as a “source of life,” Peatross said. “It functions beautifully as a wonderful relieving factor … [It] enhances the building, but it [makes] people’s lives a little better too,” by refreshing visitors in the summertime.
Washington native Kimbly Jackson, who was visiting the fountain after touring the Capitol during her day off from work, said she loved the structure’s intricate detail. “The women and the men look strong, like they are living in a world of water,” she said, admiring their realistic facial features. “This is the first time I really stopped to take it in. Sometimes, when you look at something, you have to look and look until you really see it.”