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Ambitious Expansion Plans for Library in Mt. Pleasant Roils Community; Many Object to Design and Question Programs

By Anthony L. Harvey

[Note: Photographs accompanying this news story in the print edition can be viewed in the full PDF copy in the Current & Back Issues Archive.]

The Mt. Pleasant Public Library’s compact but imposing Italian Renaissance villa-style, “City Beautiful” building sits on a strategic, if thoroughly irregularly-sized, lot at 16th and Lamont Streets. It faces, at an odd, northeast angle that same intersection and is further shielded from 16th Street traffic by the small triangular park which is the site of the Marconi Memorial Statue. Architecturally the structure’s site specific design and its superior construction materials are an ingenious solution to the use of this important location.

The building’s construction was completed in 1925, the third of three branch libraries gifted to the District of Columbia by Andrew Carnegie following his turn-of-the-century construction of the DC Central Library on Mt. Vernon Square. The building was designed by Edward L. Tilton, Carnegie’s frequently used public Library architect, and is considered by Historic Mt. Pleasant to be the community’s most important architectural asset, according to its recent correspondence with the US Commission of Fine Arts.

Years of programmatic neglect and building maintenance deferrals have been reversed in the last two-and-a-half years, thanks to the determined insistence of Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham and strong community support. Restored historic windows and doors, interior re-lamping, and replacement period furniture are only three of the recent dramatic improvements to the physical facility.

Programmatic improvements are following and an aggressive DC Public Library Board of Trustees and DCPL’s Chief Librarian have been boldly pushing forward with the design and construction of four new branch libraries and staged replacements, restorations, make-overs, and expansions and additions to all of the other branch libraries, with Mt. Pleasant a high priority; it is the only public Library in Ward 1 and sits on the 16th Street boundary with Columbia Heights and two blocks north of Adams Morgan’s Lanier Heights and Reed Cooke community boundaries of Harvard Street and Columbia Road; none of the close-by neighborhoods have branch libraries of any kind.

According to branch librarians, central Library administrators, and adult users, the Mt. Pleasant Library building has outgrown its present and near-term future uses; its Children’s Room and storytelling facilities desperately need expansion; it has no separate young adult or teen room space; and rooms for adult programs are lacking in magnitude and sophistication. The building’s basement meeting room is woefully inadequate and is not separately accessible. For these and other reasons, former Mayor Anthony Williams and DCPL embarked on an extensive series of city-wide planning sessions, community outreach programs — which differed dramatically in each of the city’s neighborhoods, some for the better, others for the worse — and a “Blue Ribbon” panel that made site visits to noteworthy new urban Library systems throughout the country.

Others of the public and political realm have stepped up as well. Ralph Nader’s Library Renaissance Project has been especially active in organizing neighborhood activists on Library matters. Friends of the Library, the League of Women Voters, committees of the DC Council with oversight over Library issues, and Neighborhood Advisory Commissions (ANCs) have all joined the fray, with some ANCs either suing or threatening to sue DCPL. Regardless of traditional or statutory roles and missions, all seek to influence the outcome of this remarkable reform movement for what should be a vital and dynamic urban Library system for the Nation’s Capital.

Which brings us back to the Mt. Pleasant branch Library and the current consideration by the District’s approving regulatory bodies of an expansion program that has long been proposed by DCPL as a substitute for the earlier limited proposal for a restoration and make-over of the existing facility. In a remarkable series of interactions with the community, DCPL has three times revised its architectural plans and drawings to respond to the communities recommendations and objections.

Specifically, these included objections by Historic Mt. Pleasant to even the consideration of the removal of the building’s front stairs and of any alteration of the west side stairs to the Children’s Room, and to the addition of a strikingly contemporary glass curtain wall, high ceiling building to the Library’s west side — derisively dubbed by protesting residents as “the ice cube.” Adverse impacts of fire safety and emergency access have been removed by redesigning where the handicapped ramp to the expansion building would be constructed. Pleas for the joint development of programmatic plans for the Library have not been met to the satisfaction of the Mt. Pleasant ANC. And objections to any new building addition to be constructed behind the Library’s historic structure have been rejected by DCPL. Friends of the Library have focused on renovation and restoration issues and on fund-raising activities in support of current programs and near-term future programs.

The net result of these strenuous community objections and recommendations have been, in terms of the current, revised plans, constructive. Improved designs and plans for an expansion building behind the historic structure, which would be finished in a more historically compatible cladding of limestone and colored terra cotta — but still to be further refined — and a new plan that includes tree plantings in the “two small seating areas surrounded by greenery — [especially] of trees that offers the advantage of helping screen the addition,” was noted in Historic Mt. Pleasant’s Fine Arts Commission correspondence. All of the community expressed earlier appreciation for the movement of the proposed switch back ADA ramp from the open east side of the building to that of the west, Lamont Street side-this for both aesthetic and emergency access reasons.

After receiving approval from the Fine Arts Commission, DCPL brought its revised plans to the District’s Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) for approval. In a concise and information-packed staff memorandum recommending approval by Historic Preservation Office (HPO) reviewer Tim Dennée, HPO recommended the adoption of the current plans and drawings “in concept, and [that the Board] delegate further review to HPO staff, in coordination with the Commission of Fine Arts.”

Objections were immediately heard from community activists. Robin Diener and Chris Otten of the Library Renaissance Project voiced objections to the elimination of the small sun room attached to the back of the historic building and its replacement with a glass gallery or hyphen-style link to the proposed new building. This glass gallery link would also provide a major entrance to both buildings and public circulation between the two. Diener and Otten also focused on the programmatic or policy question of “what’s driving the express need for the expansion building,” asserting that it was simply DCPL’s desire for a new, high ceiling meeting room accommodating 100 people, and that one-third of the existing building was not being used — or at least not being effectively used. Diener also passionately called for the reconsideration of an earlier proposal that would remove the historic building’s monumental front steps.

Historic Mt. Pleasant would like a restoration of both the historic structure and the historic site — a make-over much like the dramatically successful renovation and restoration of DCPL’s Takoma DC branch Library, just re-opened this year. And HPRB members were obviously both impressed and intrigued with the heat of the opposition expressed at the Board’s September monthly hearing. Probing questions were asked — and they covered both programmatic issues as well as architectural design considerations. A theme emerged of Board-expressed concerns for how DCPL programmatic plans were established: were they generated by the community or imposed by the Library? ADA entrance issues were also explored. Chairman Boasberg, however, drew the line on testimony regarding fire and EMS access issues as being beyond HPRB’s statutory mandate, reminding his fellow Board members that historic preservation and design compatibility of the proposed rear addition were the Board’s sole concerns on the Mt. Pleasant Library matter.

In an unusual move, the Board took no action on the Library’s proposal, instead leaving the hearing record open until 12 noon on October 13 for additional submissions from the community, with HPRB discussing the matter further — without any additional testimony — at its October 22 monthly meeting, at which time a vote would be taken approving or disapproving the matter.