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New State-of-the-Art Library in Tenleytown to Open Late January

By Anthony L. Harvey

Images accompanying this news story can be viewed in the current issue PDF

The public library as an open book — with access free to all regardless of race, color, creed, or economic status — is one of America’s finest civic sector achievements. Founded in the late 19th century, the public library movement was created and sustained out of a uniquely American mixture of private philanthropy — think of Andrew Carnegie — and publicly funded operating and maintenance moneys; indefatigable efforts of public-spirited elected officials and community activists; and tireless work by dedicated professional library staffs.

In Washington, with the added infusion over the past several years of DC capital budget appropriations, the District’s public library system is undergoing a metamorphosis that is revolutionizing a previously broken and moribund system with sparkling new buildings and restored, renovated, and expanded historic library structures — all equipped with 21st century library systems and services.

Tenley-Friendship is the last of the four DC branch libraries closed five years ago and initially slated to be replaced with replicas of a single design — a conventional, one-size fits all concoction, on four dramatically different sites — that of Shaw/Watha Daniel, Benning/Dorothy Height, Anacostia, and Tenley.

(All of these branch library projects have been the subject of previous reports by The InTowner. See, “Opening of State of the Art New Branch Library in Shaw Acclaimed for its Design and Collections,” August 2010, page 1; “City Council Hearing Spotlights New Library in Shaw & Elsewhere; Mt. Pleasant Controversy Aired,” September 2007, page 1; “Four Branch Libraries, Including in Shaw, to Get New Buildings; ‘Partnership’ Deals for Some Projects Raising Major Questions,” August 2007, page 1.)

A pre-opening inspection of the Tenley facility reveals a building that is, like the other three, a transformative vision of what an urban neighborhood library can look and feel like. And the “open book” is an apt, visual metaphor for this structure — designed and developed by the architects of the Freelon Group and R McGhee Associates in close collaboration with DCPL Chief Librarian Ginnie Cooper, her gifted library staff and community activists throughout the Tenley-Friendship neighborhoods.

The building presents itself on a challenging but dramatically located small and sloping land-locked site at Wisconsin Avenue and Albemarle Street, directly to the east of Janney Elementary School. In the words of its designers, it’s a four-sided “open book,” with its concrete-framed, rear west side facing Janney and the corrugated copper-sheathed alley-facing south side façade representing opaque front and back covers of a hardbound book. The building’s other two sides on Wisconsin and Albemarle, respectively, with their dramatic glass curtain walls shielded by an array of ingeniously designed, narrow copper sheathed perforated glass sunscreen fins are structured to present vertical rows of geometric edges — in this case, the edges of an open book’s pages. Together with the high-ceiling floors and a light-filled central atrium, the result is visually glorious, both inside and out.

The Wisconsin façade provides a classically coherent presence to the street of a significant and strikingly designed new building, the purpose of which is immediately visible through the vertical sunscreen panels shielding the glass curtain walls from the sun’s glare. The Albemarle façade best shows the actual configuration of the three-part structure, and gives an engaging side view of all parts: the front part containing the public service areas of the library, the middle which connects the glass and metal framed lobby and stair case with the skylit atrium, and the concrete framed back part containing the library’s administrative and processing offices, meeting and conference rooms, and building mechanicals.

This concrete back part, painted in a strong, copper color tint to tie its surface appearance to that of the corrugated copper-covered south side and the copper-shielded sunscreen fins, was reinforced as built to allow for the possibility of another building being built over the library — including its cantilevering over the glass and metal front part of the building. This back part leads to the building’s roof structures, which include a large and intricately designed vegetative roof of grasses and flowering plants and, reflective white surface structures surrounding the penthouse mechanicals.

An equally apt metaphor for this engaging, modernist structure might be that of a beautiful butterfly arising out of a chrysalis of dull gray cinder block and brick, predecessor branch library building of 1959 — which seems best remembered as a smaller than actually sized structure, dimly lit with institutional fluorescent bulbs in a bunker-style enclosure.

One enters the new library, — which is bright, open, airy and immediately engaging — to a display of new books, DVDs, CDs, and multimedia library materials. The first floor features a children’s section with Apple computers that have child-designed keyboards. The library’s 32 public access computers are all Apple, with free WiFi available throughout the building for those users working with their own computers. The second floor features a graphic novels section for young adults, stacks of adult materials, especially novels and non-fiction books covering myriad subjects — from recreational to research — and computer tables arranged around the perimeters of the Wisconsin and Albemarle sides of the building. Fourteen-foot first floor ceilings and 12-and-a-half-foot second floor ceilings rise above an 18-inch raised floor serving everything from electrical conduits and heat and cooling mechanicals, ensuring that energy is expended only to the height of those using the library and not to heat and cool the volumes of air space high above to the ceilings.

This 20,000-square foot, $10 million library has been  designed to provide comfortable seating for 200 patrons and an initial collection of 40,000 volumes of books, DVDs, CDs, and other library materials, with a capacity for an eventual 80,000 volumes. Only seven vehicular parking spaces are provided, as was the case at the old library. Bicycle racks will be available and the site is well-served by buses on Wisconsin and Nebraska Avenues and the Tenley/American University Metro station directly across from the library.

The new library’s 100-person capacity community meeting space, with its dramatic 16-foot high ceiling, and two small conference rooms are accessible for use after the library’s public service hours — a high priority for the community.

Exterior landscaping for the library’s small amount of green space has been cleverly designed on the steep grade of the Albemarle side of the building, creating a three-tiered set of planters framing a welcoming seating area. Three mature trees along Wisconsin have been saved and provided with larger and better constructed tree boxes. These planting areas are joined to a storm water retention system that collects, treats, and sand filters waste in a collection basin beneath the surface parking area on the south, alley side of the building.

The use of recycled materials, including content in the building’s steel, glass, and concrete, and an emphasis of low volatile organic compounds by Forrester Construction, the library’s construction firm, and the building’s innovative lighting, heating, air conditioning, ventilation controls, its green roof structure will all factor into the plan to apply for a silver LEED certification for the building.

The Tenley-Friendship neighborhood library’s formal opening is scheduled for Monday, January 24th with a Saturday, February 5th further library dedication and community festivity also planned.