Historic Structures

The Volta Bureau (Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf), Washington DC

Date added: September 16, 2010 Categories: Library

Alexander Graham Bell was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, March 3, 1847, the son of Alexander Melville Bell, who originated a phonetic system of visible speech for teaching the deaf. His father's system, utilized symbols by which the positions of the vocal organs in speech could be indicated--a system which made him the most famous speech expert of his day.

The young Bell, too, was primarily interested in speech. He was educated in Scotland and England and taught in London until his family moved to Canada in 1870. In 1871 he was invited to Boston to lecture to teachers of the deaf on his father's method of "visible speech." The young Bell was always interested by the possibilities of teaching the deaf. He became a professor of vocal physiology and mechanics of speech at the School of Oratory at Boston University, from 1873 to 1877. While in Boston, he fell in love with one of his pupils, Mabel G. Hubbard, who had been deaf since she suffered an attack of scarlet fever at the age of four. They were married in 1877.

At that time Bell was working on the experiments that would lead to the invention of the telephone. It was his expert knowledge of sound more than of electricity that was to lead to the final development. A patent for the invention of the telephone was awarded to him on March 7, 1876. In 1880 France awarded him the Volta prize, a sum of 50,000 francs, or about $10,000, for the invention and made him a member of the Legion of Honor. This prize enabled Bell finally to devote himself to the education of deaf children.

Bell had moved to Washington, D.C., in 1878. He decided to invest the money from the Volta Prize in additional experiments and so established the Volta Laboratory in the stables behind the house he had purchased for his parents on the southwest corner of 35th and Volta Place. Along with his cousin, Chichester J. Bell, and Sumner Tainter, he invented the flat wax phonograph record, the first graphaphone record that could survive repeated playing. Bell sold the patent for the phonograph record for $200,000 and took this profit to establish the Volta Bureau and a trust fund for its endowment. The Volta Laboratory was converted into the Volta Bureau for the Increase and Diffusion of Knowledge Relating to the Deaf.

Dr. Bell became a citizen of the United States in 1882. He was a founding member of the National Geographic Society and was its president from 1898 to 1903. He died August 2, 1922, and was buried at the family estate in Baddeck, Nova Scotia.

Alexander Graham Bell founded the Volta Bureau in 1887 to establish a center for information on the education of deaf children. John Hitz, former Consul-General to the United States from Switzerland, who had been Bell's assistant in the laboratory and had handled many of the inquiries that had come into the Laboratory, was named "superintendent" of the Bureau.

As the volume of correspondence increased, and the size of Dr. Bell's library on deafness and speech grew, it became necessary for the Bureau to have its own building. Construction of a building across the street from the Laboratory was begun in 1893. Helen Keller, then 12 years old, was present at the ground-breaking ceremonies on May 8, 1893. The building was completed in 1894.

An article in the "Georgetown" column of The Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), September 1, 1894, indicates that at the time of the article the new institute was not yet furnished. At the end of September, 1894 , the books from Bell's library in the Laboratory were to be moved into the new library, a fireproof structure with a capacity of 50,000 volumes.

In 1909 Bell deeded the Bureau to the American Association to Promote the Teaching of Speech to the Deaf. Because this original name was found to be too long and too difficult to say over the telephone, it was changed to the Volta Speech Association for the Deaf. Recently, however, the association has been renamed the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf, so that Dr, Bell's name would be incorporated in the title.

The library begun by Dr. Bell now houses one of the world's largest collections of books on deafness. The Bureau publishes printed matter on all problems of deafness except medical problems, and answers personal letters from all over the world. The Volta Review, edited at the Bureau, is published ten times a year.

After the remodeling of 1948-1949, the Volta Bureau was rededicated on January 14, 1950. Helen Keller attended these ceremonies also.

The Volta Bureau Library is open to the public. On the walls of the Bureau hang many old photographs of Dr. Bell as well as two of the original wax records with notations in Bell's own writing.

This rectangular structure measures 66'-8" X 32'-0" (three-bay front) with the front steps projecting 30'-0" further to the west. The present structure has three stories (including basement) and a four-floor stack area in the east end.

Floor plans: The present interior was divided into two floors in 1948, and there was considerable remodeling. At present both first and second floors of the main part of the building (excluding stacks) have a central hall running east-west somewhat south of the center line. At the west end of the first floor is an entrance foyer with an office to the north and south; east of these are two more offices both north and south, followed by small lavatories on the north (now being remodeled) and the modern stairway on the south. At the rear is the second stack level now used as a conference room. On the second floor the arrangement is similar to the first floor except that at the west are two larger offices (each with closets that extend out in the walls beside the recessed porch), and at the east end a large office replaces the lavatories and small office of the first floor. The basement appears to have been remodeled also in 1948. The north-south brick arched passageway under the front porch is 3'-4" wide and now used for storage. The basement is divided into three east-west aisles or sections; the northern two are offices and (to the east) a storage room. The southern section contains the mailing room and stairway. The stacks occupy four levels at the east end. The lowest is 4 risers above the basement; the second floor is a conference room, the third stacks, and the fourth is being remodeled into office cubicles.