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Opening of State of the Art New Branch Library in Shaw Acclaimed for its Design and Collections

By Anthony L. Harvey

[Note: Photographs accompanying this news story can be viewed in the current issue PDF.]

A crowd of over 100 neighborhood and nearby residents, DC Public Library trustees and staff, DC Mayor Adrian Fenty, DC Council Chair Vincent Gray, DC Council Members Evans, Thomas, and Graham, ANC commissioners galore, Library Friends and civic associations and activists, architects and construction firm executives — all braved a threatening storm to assemble on August 2nd at 7th Street and Rhode Island Avenue directly across from the R Street Metro station to celebrate the long-awaited opening of the brand new Shaw/Watha T. Daniel Library.

Sitting on a prominent triangular lot — one created by the diagonally directed, east-west Rhode Island Avenue bisecting the north-south 7th and 8th Streets between Q and R Streets, the site is effectively landlocked, with no curb cuts and surrounded below grade by Metro tunnels and ventilation shafts and by the usual warren of utility pipes, conduits, and junction boxes.

The previous mid-1970s branch library building on this site was designed as an extreme example of the Brutalist, concrete constructed fashion of that decade’s avant garde architecture. (For a photo of the replaced building, see “Long-Awaited Library in Shaw to Open Aug. 2; Building Design Hailed,” InTowner, July 2010, PDF page 1; available in the Current & Back Issues Archive.)

It was a short-lived fashion, and the building was especially disliked; its dark and foreboding façades, broken only by narrow slit windows more appropriate for archery or gun-mount defenses, sat on an even darker bomb shelter-style basement. The building repelled users, and after efforts to brighten its interior and make the outside of the building more welcoming failed, the library trustees announced its closing in December of 2004, promising a replacement with a state of the art facility more reflective of neighborhood needs and desires.

Initial efforts, including the creation of a single, model branch library design that could be replicated for each of the first four branch libraries being closed by the trustees foundered on community and DC Council objections.

Under a new library board and with dramatically changed library staff leadership, the model design was in turn replaced with a widely advertised design competition for individual architectural proposals for each of the four new buildings. The firm of Davis Brody Bond Aedas won two of the competitions, the already – and by all accounts — spectacularly successful Benning/Dorothy Irene Height branch in Ward 7 and the new Watha T. Daniel branch.

In design and execution, the work of the Davis Brody Bond team, led by principal architect Peter Cook, was greeted by enthusiastic and immediate use of the three-level, 22,000 square-foot facility — chock full of 40,000 books, DVDs, CDs, and 32 public access computers (both PCs and Macs).

High ceilings, glass window walls protected from glare by an ingenious metal mesh screen wall on the Rhode Island Avenue façade and alternating fretted/clear glass panels on the sleek R Street side, and an open plan for library user movements from functional areas, age related alcoves, and book and other materials stack areas serve to maximize light, visibility, and the sense of airiness. The 8th Street side — the base of the triangular lot — sympathetically points toward its grand avenue to its left and faces the narrower cross street with corner windows and double triangular points, directly across from New Bethel Baptist’s Foster House apartments.

The main entrance on 7th Street — at the dramatic tip of the triangle pointing toward the Asbury Dwellings across Rhode Island Avenue — will be further brightened later this month with the installation of sculptor Craig Kraft’s competition-winning design of a colorful steel and neon lighted structure called Vivace, named by the artist to reflect the movement of jazz music. (Ed. note: A photo of the artist putting the finishing touches on his work outside his R Street studio can be seen at page 6 of the July issue article cited above.)

The library’s site-specific contemporary glass and steel structure is topped off with a flat, vegetative green roof for a building that includes energy efficient lighting, floor mechanicals that heat or cool only the first six feet of each level’s volume, and the use throughout of recycled materials.

Forrester Construction’s prowess reflected in the building’s successful completion was vigorously noted, and the leadership of the library trustees and John Hill, its president, and that of the DC Public Library’s Chief Librarian Ginnie Cooper and her technical and professional staff was especially commended by Mayor Fenty, Council Chair Gray, and Ward 2 Councilmember Evans, whose ward includes the new library.

Architect Peter Cook emphasized to this reporter the team efforts involved and the successes created by having outstanding teams from all parties working together to complete this remarkable new facility — notably Ginnie Cooper and her staff. Community activists also remarked of the intense involvement of Shaw, Logan Circle, and Mt. Vernon Square neighborhood residents in their long-standing agitation for a branch library that was ample in size and a structure light and airy in appearance — both inside and out — with glass rather than metal wall panels and a comprehensive library collection and user-friendly new computers — all of this in a safe and secure new structure.

Shaw ANC Commissioner Alexander Padro, who also serves as president of the Library Friends, best expressed the community’s opening day sentiments in conversation with this reporter by summing up what had been accomplished by the creation of this new library facility, contrasting the old Brutalist structure with its new glass and steel replacement:

“From a concrete bunker to a glass jewel box; from a building that looked like a prison to one that’s a shining beacon of knowledge for the community, this building is truly a fitting tribute to the man whose name it bears who led us from the prospect of neighborhood annihilation — like in southwest — to the mix of the old and the new that is home to such a diverse community.”