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Petworth Branch Library Re-Opening Reveals Major Enhancements Inside

By Anthony L. Harvey

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

After the Petworth branch library’s closing in January, 2010 for a $13 million capital project of repair, renovation, and restoration, the DC Public Library celebrated the project’s completion with a ribbon cutting that marked re-opening of this more than 18,000 square-foot building on February 28, 2011. With appropriate fanfare and a large community presence, DC Mayor Vincent Gray, Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser, and the library board of trustees president John Hill inaugurated the library’s return to service in an increasingly vibrant neighborhood — one which is seeing an increasing amount of redevelopment and new residential and commercial construction to support a burgeoning population that is including more and more families with school-age children.

Located adjacent to public schools and a large, newly rebuilt, athletic playing field and high school stadium at the prominent convergence of Kansas, Georgia, and Iowa Avenues between Upshur and Varnum Streets near Metro’s Petworth station and on several bus routes at the Georgia and Kansas Avenue intersection, the library serves for as a landmark and beacon for the area’s surrounding neighborhoods.

Constructed in 1939 in a handsome, classic Georgian Revival style — the last of the District’s pre-World War II “City Beautiful” library construction projects — this 70-year-old building had suffered from years of inadequate maintenance and a systematic failure to exploit the size and features of the original building design. A realigned front entrance to comply with an earlier era’s federal American With Disabilities Act (ADA) requirement provided the building with an awkward door and a circulating system that placed a wall between the library’s patrons and natural light on the building’s main floor. Consequently, the building become dark and dowdy.

Adding to the sense of decay was the increasingly dingy lower level that became a storage area for library system-wide mechanized equipment, for the system’s entire fleet of snow blowing machines, and for dead storage for library materials such as back issues of periodicals and superseded publications yet to be discarded. A small and dreary community meeting room together with a pair of ancient rest rooms presented an aura both unwelcoming and appearing less than safe for library patrons.

The exterior restoration of the building eliminated the realigned front entrance, constructing in its place a modern ADA entrance ramp to a beautifully restored front entry and a reconstructed front right window matching the earlier bricked-over opening and thus returning the building to its original light-filled main floor, the surface of which has been restored and extended with new, complementing terrazzo marble with an inlay creating a delightful, brass-colored mapping of the building site’s surrounding streets. Outside, bike racks are provided nearby.

Two side desks replace the large circulation desk which sat in front of the now removed wall. Natural cork flooring, restored woodwork and, in places, matching new wood paneling throughout the upper two levels complement the new and restored furniture and shorter shelving which allows more natural light to brighten up the adult, young adult, and children’s reading rooms and program areas.

The crowning touch to this restoration was the construction of the building’s cupola and balustrade, planned in the original design and prepared at the building’s attic level with the necessary support, but eliminated in a late 1930s example of value engineering when cost cutting was required. Petworth Library’s cupola now joins the comparable cupolas of several surrounding schools and church buildings.

The Petworth library is opening with more than 40,000 books, DVDs, CDs, and other library materials, including periodicals, with a capacity for an eventual 80,000 items. Free Wi-Fi is available throughout the building, with 40 computers set up for library patron use.

In addition to the designated adult, young adult, and children’s areas, there are extremely well-lighted conference, study, and children’s story rooms with energy-efficient lighting, air conditioning, and heating systems throughout the building. And the building’s lower level has been completely made over with a 100-person community meeting room that opens onto a landscaped outdoor patio.

This bright and sparklingly restored building provides 42 percent more usable program space than was available in the prior allocation of interior space. The building’s crisp new sightlines and enveloping natural light from its restored fenestration show off the welcoming expansion of the library’s three floors, especially the recaptured space on the lower level.

GCS/Sigal Construction, Franck & Lohsen Architects, and the Bennett Group for exterior restoration and several subcontractors were responsible for this handsome new construction, renovation, and restoration work, as is the DC Public Library’s capital projects and administrative staffs led by DCPL’s Chief Librarian Ginnie Cooper.

The Petworth library restoration project follows the equally successful Georgetown and Takoma DC efforts, with Cooper taking special note of the indefatigable efforts of DCPL’s project coordinator for these restorations — and in the case of Georgetown, restoration and expansion–projects, Chris Wright. Cooper also noted that local firms are responsible for the high quality of these restoration efforts — Columbia Woodworking, for example — and that in the case of the Petworth Library project, 60 present of the firms successfully engaged are DC certified CBE contractors.