You descend from East Capitol Street into a little garden oasis, planted with fairy tale flowers from early modern England. Soon, there will be poetry readings and tours here; now, you just dally for a moment before you let the sunlight follow you through the glass doors and into the below-grade entrance to the newly renovated Folger Shakespeare Library (201 East Capitol St. SE).
Greeted in the newly built lobby, you pass the gift shop. There, you make the difficult decision: turn left, into the north gallery, to see the entire collection of Shakespeare’s works in one room? Or turn right into the new south gallery to see rarely displayed literary-historical pieces on display.
Afterwards, you take the elevator upstairs to the Folger’s famous Great Hall, stopping at the planned cafe or bar where you sit with a beverage under the soaring plaster strapwork ceiling.
This is the experience you can have when the Folger Shakespeare Library reopens to the public Nov. 17. Following the completion of its two-and-a-half year renovation, the Folger building will better reflect its mission: the Folger is letting the outside in.
“Honestly, I really do think the story is, this is a place for everyone,” said Folger Shakespeare Library Program Director Karen Ann Daniels. “More tours, more children, more everyone coming into the building.”
“When those doors swing open, this is for you —it’s not just for the few.”
Mission in Marble
The Folger was established in 1932 by Henry and Emily Folger. The building was a gift to the American people, together with their collection of Shakespeare materials —the world’s largest then and now. It has since expanded its holdings to become a world-class research and resource center for Shakespeare studies.
In 1969, O.B. Hardison became Director of the Folger. He immediately moved to make the research institution more accessible to the public, creating outreach and education programs. He founded what is now the Shakespeare Theater at the Folger and introduced concerts by the Folger Consort.
The mission continued with readings in his honor, the O.B. Hardison Poetry Series; the publication of the Folger Shakespeare Library editions; and myriad other programs and online resources. During the building renovation, the Folger team expanded their outreach by introducing themselves, the institution’s programs and resources in all eight wards of the District.
All this is in service of the Folger Library mission: to advance understanding and appreciation of Shakespeare by preserving and enhancing an accessible collection.
“If your whole purpose is to keep it for posterity for future generations, but most people can’t actually get in to see it or use it, what good is it?” Daniels said. “The idea is to shift that.”
The renovation opens up the Folger both literally and figuratively, allowing public enjoyment of the grounds, building, events, resources and collections with improved accessibility throughout, including with additional elevators and ramps in the historic building.
“It will give us the ability to fulfill our mission in a way that we’ve never really been able to do before,” said Folger Director Dr. Michael Witmore.
Witmore was appointed Director of the Folger in 2011, and immediately began working with the Board of Governors to draft a strategic plan, adopted in 2013. That led to the development of a facilities master plan for the Folger spaces, on which the renovations are based.
“It was in the course of finishing that master plan that we realized the first and vital piece to begin with would be to truly open up the building and put the pieces of our program and mission together in a complementary way,” he told the Hill Rag as renovation got underway in 2020.
Opening Up the Building
The biggest change was the addition of interior rooms underground below the plinth, the elevated platform along East Capitol Street, which houses the two new exhibition spaces. In addition to the North and South Galleries, the expansion includes a gift shop and washroom facilities supporting the galleries and theatre. It also adds two elevators that will provide accessibility within the building, including to the theatre balconies.
On the exterior, the building’s main entrances will be relocated to newly created East and West public gardens. A sloping walkway will make the plinth accessible so that visitors can see the nine famous bas-reliefs along the façade, created by sculptor John Gregory (1879-1958). Each depicts a scene from a different Shakespeare play. When the building was designed, the Folgers asked for the placement near street level, rather than along the roofline, to give the public a better view.
“The idea is that the whole perimeter of the building can return to its original vision, which is an open garden with the building sitting in the middle of it,” said Stephen Kieran of Kieran-Timberlake, the architecture firm engaged for the project.
All of the entrances are fully accessible, as well as the interior space and the exterior plinth, graded to allow access at the front of the building. It’s a critical improvement that is echoed inside, where stairs once inhibited accessibility to exhibits. Ramps and elevators now ensure access for all.
The exterior of the building was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1963 and the interior was added to the register in 2018. So, much of the main building remains the same, aside from improvements to accessibility and a new carpet in the library. But there is one change on the main floor you have to see: the Great Hall has been transformed from an exhibit space to a public gathering place, including a cafe and bar open to the public.
At 130 feet long with 30-foot ceilings, the Great Hall evokes the gallery of a 16th century manor. The walls are paneled in dark-stained Appalachian White Oak, with a bust of library founder Henry Folger carved by Gregory, the artist responsible for the bas-relief on the exterior. The terra-cotta floors include a floral band bordering the room that lists the titles of Shakespeare best-known plays.
Programming to Continue
Witmore said that the galleries will allow the Folger to display many of the most rare and well-known items in its collection. For the first time the library will display all 82 copies of Shakespeare’s First Folios together. There are only 235 known copies of the First Folio, the collection of works by Shakespeare printed in 1623. Interactive displays will help visitors explore Shakespeare, his work and world and the reasons why the folios are important today.
Programming will be thematically interwoven, bringing exhibitions, learning, performances, and humanities in deep alignment. The South Gallery will host an ever-changing exhibition of the items in the Folger Collection, beginning with a display of rarely seen books and other items from the extraordinary collection of Stuart and Mimi Rose, for whom the Hall is named. It will be an active cultural space as well as museum, Daniels said.
The new Learning Lab will allow a designated space for learning and education throughout the day, and the programming in these spaces will be designed, together with performances by the Folger Theater, to tell a more complete story about Shakespeare’s world and what his works can tell us about our own world.
The upcoming 2023/24 season is themed “What’s Your Story?”. It will offer opportunities for visitors of all ages to engage with humanities programs, family programs, exhibition and garden tours, hands-on workshops, classes, printing press demos, programs for teachers and students, curated conversations, gallery talks, experiences, and community gatherings. Finally, performances of the award-winning Folger Theatre and Folger Consort will return to the building, together with the O.B. Hardison Poetry Series and the Folger Book Club.
All this programming is designed around the “What’s Your Story?” theme. “It’s really about drawing the parallels about why we would hang onto these things and what they tell us about ourselves,” Daniels, the Programming Director said. It’s not only about what the Folger has to offer the public, she said. It is also about how the public will use those resources in their lives. She imagines conversations happening in the gardens, as people sit surrounded by plants common to the early modern period in England.
“It’s about being open to the public, and letting our space and resources be used by the people,” Daniels said. “Honestly, I really do think the story of this place is that this is a place for everyone.”
Learn more about the Folger Shakespeare Library and theatre or support the Folger by visiting Folger.edu. Purchase tickets to the Folger Gala at folger.edu/folger-gala. Email questions or comments about the Folger Facilities Master Plan designs to email@example.com.