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DC Branch Libraries Acclaimed “Reinvention” Revealed in Architectural Photography Show

Images accompanying this feature can be viewed in the current issue PDF

Between 2009 and 2013, 14 major new construction and historic renovation and restoration projects have been completed by the DC Public Library (DCPL) system. These projects have won numerous awards for architectural and historic preservation excellence, LEED and green building certification excellence, and visionary library architectural design. The show reported on below, and what it reveals, is the first to bring these projects together in a survey introduction to both the architectural community and the general public.

By Anthony L. Harvey*

Washington, DC, is a metropolis that enjoys a continuing wealth of publicly available, large, masterfully presented — and at times spectacular in visual display — fine arts exhibitions in museums and galleries throughout the city. Not all of the fine arts are equally well served, however. One of the three pillars of the classical fine arts – architecture — is the least well served in contemporary exhibitions. And in our extravagant culture, size also matters. Thus we have the phenomenon of the often ignored small, simple and understated shows, especially when the focus is on the local, even when such a s

And such is the case with the District Architecture Center’s current offering: “Reinventing the Library: Washington’s New Centers for Learning.” Organized by the DC chapter of the American Institute of Architects, this round-up survey show features 10 of the 14 library building projects referred to in the introductory note above and provides, in the concise and eloquent words of the show’s organizers “a glimpse of the DC Public Library system’s revitalization established by the Library Building Program. It explores how it is invigorating communities, how it is molding the city as a center for civic architecture, and how it is fashioning a new age of public service.”

The Architecture Center has done by this demonstrating what can be accomplished using stunning photographs and tightly distilled explanatory texts on a dozen, two-sided wall divider-sized boards. On these display boards one will find an explanation of the goals and ambitions of the library’s board of trustees and administrators for the revitalization of 16 of the DCPL system’s branch libraries — together with architectural photographs of the results of 12 of these completed efforts. These boards are book-ended by panels highlighting the restoration of the original, 1903, Central Library building in Mount Vernon Square, the jewel in the crown of Andrew Carnegie‘s 1,400 American public libraries and now the headquarters of the Historical Society of Washington, DC. Included on these panels are the beautiful architectural renderings by North Carolina’s Freelon Group of architects displaying their proposal for the  renovation and expansion of the main library downtown, the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Library — complete with two additional floors and terraces.

In launching this major “reinventing” several years ago, the library system’s goals included the provision of new or restored and enlarged branch libraries that would have a distinctive and community anchoring presence, with 20,000 to 22,000 square feet of flexible interior floor space, built to a sustainable, LEED certification, green building design, and fully ADA accessible both inside and out. The Library further called for structures with a public entrance at street level in an architecturally pleasing modern and iconic or historically renovated building.

Further, each library was to have 80,000 books and other library materials such as CDs and DVDs, access to electronic resources and data bases, and contain 200-plus seats together with a community meeting space to accommodate at least 100 persons, two, 12 to 16 person conference and quiet rooms, and six study rooms for one or two persons. All would be wi-fi accessible and the community meeting space would have AV equipment and an assisted listening system. State of the art computer terminals would be provided — at least 24 for adults and eight for children, with laptops for training and individual use.

The first wave of reconstructed branch libraries included the replacement libraries for four branches that had long been closed and slated for demolition. The phoenix-like resurrection of these four library buildings — Dorothy Height/Benning, Anacostia; Watha T. Daniel/Shaw, and Tenley/Friendship Heights — in brilliantly configured contemporary, modern structures, expresses the beauty, complexity, strength, perseverance and fruitfulness of that legendary bird. Designed and constructed by top-of-the-line architectural and construction firms to site-specific design specifications that exploit and enhance their respective sites and that of the both new and traditional functions planned for  their interiors, these buildings and their collections and services have been instant successes in all four neighborhoods as reflected by the continuing surge of users in their individual communities since these new libraries opened.

Among the outstanding renovations and restorations of DC libraries pictured in the show are those for the Georgetown and Mt. Pleasant branch libraries, with Georgetown being even more of a phoenix in its resurrection and expansion after a disastrous fire a few years ago. Its sensitively reclaimed building includes a modernized interior with an English basement level expansion of its children’s room and a doubling of the size of its third floor Peabody Collection Room. The Mt. Pleasant library, which sits on the 16th Street boundary between the dramatically increasing populations of the Mt. Pleasant and Columbia Heights neighborhoods, has both a beautiful restored historic building coupled to a handsome modern structure providing the additional space necessary to accomplish library programming plans, modern building mechanicals, and a suitable community meeting room.

Avant-garde interiors and exteriors of the two newest branch library reconstructions, both of which were  designed by David Adjaye Associates architects, complete with dramatic interior shots, are among the highlights of the show, providing more than just a glimpse of Adjaye’s trademark sensitivity to library interiors and their spatial relationships among users, collections, and services, together with an inside/out design emphasis, the natural and introduced interior lighting of their dramatic spaces and their intuitively engaging nature of the structures themselves.

This superior, if small and understated, show continues through September 28th in the District Architecture Center’s Sigal Gallery at 421 7th Street, NW; no charge for admission. Open Monday through Thursday 10am to 7pm,  Friday to 5pm and Saturday to 2pm; closed Sunday. For more information, visit www.aiadac.com/about/exhibitions.

Editor’s note: The InTowner has extensively covered library renovation, restoration, new construction projects, and planning efforts for both branch libraries and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library over the course of previous months. Four especially newsworthy feature articles on branch libraries located in The InTowner‘s immediate coverage area are the following: “Renovated and Expanded Mt. Pleasant Library Reopens to Great Acclaim,” September 2012 issue PDF page 1 (http://tinyurl.com/pncxgyb); “New State-of-the-Art Library in Tenleytown to Open Late January,” January 2011 issue PDF page 1 (http://tinyurl.com/qb7zwqx); “Petworth Branch Library Re-Opening Reveals Major Enhancements Inside,” March 2011 issue PDF page 1 (http://tinyurl.com/p3t8ps2); “Opening of State of the Art New Branch Library in Shaw Acclaimed for its Design and Collections,” August 2010 PDF page 1 (http://tinyurl.com/ouvwyq8). Of additional interest we call attention to our report last year, “Disposition or Retention of MLK Main Library Building Subject of In-Depth Report to Guide DC Library Trustees,” March 2012 issue PDF page 1 (http://tinyurl.com/qgtys4g).

*Anthony L. Harvey is a collector of contemporary art, with an emphasis on Washington artists. He is a founding member of the Washington Review of the Arts. For many years he was the staff person in the United States Senate responsible for arts and Library of Congress oversight by the Senate’s Rules and Administration Committee and the House and Senate’s Joint Committee on the Library.