When I was a youngster a trip to the town library was a big adventure. About once a month, on a Saturday morning, my father would go into town to do “jobs” one of which was to exchange the library books and I loved to tag along.
The library was in an old house with hard wooden floors – each room contained books except the kitchen and bathroom – it was dark and mysterious and efficiently run by Mrs Alderton. All the books had grids drawn inside the front and back covers so borrowers could write their initials or a symbol inside a little square so as not to accidentally borrow the book more than once.
Of course nothing was computerized and Mrs Alderton would write our name on a little card drawn from a pocket inside the cover and which was then put into lovely old wooden file boxes on her desk. She stamped the pocket with the date the book was due back and off we’d go.
This weekend I joined our library which has been closed for the last couple of years as it underwent a $12 million restoration. I joined up online and my card was ready by the time I’d walked the mile there from home. Membership comes with a user name and password for electronic books – I wonder if Mrs Alderton is still alive and what she thinks of all this high tech stuff!
The building is a gorgeous Georgian-revival style designed by Nathan C. Wyeth who was DC Municipal Architect at the time the library was designed and built. It was originally opened in January 1939. This recent renovation included total window & door restoration, new cupola and balustrade and full restoration of the original interior finishes and furniture.
The new cupola: Petworth Library was the sixth neighborhood library to open in DC and was built on land donated by the DC School board. Final construction cost was $180,000 which was provided by Congress after a public campaign to provide a library in the community. In 1927 this location was deemed ideal as it was estimated the population in the community was 50,000 and 11,000 school children attended 11 neighborhood schools; the site was also accessible by streetcar service.
The citizens of Petworth originally obtained an appropriation of $150,000 to be included in the 1932 DC budget but these funds were never approved and in 1933 the DC Public Library Board of Trustees sent a request to the DC Commissioners to include funds for the library through the Works Progress Administration – but this was also denied. In 1936 Congress finally approved $75,000 for construction of the library with another $75,000 promised for 1937 but the total funding was later raised to $180,000.
So once the money issue was settled Wyeth got busy with his drawings and had completed the design in the fall of 1937. But, then the DC Commissioners were forced to reject all contractor bids because they all exceeded the $180,000. The plans were modified to reduce construction costs and construction began December 7th 1937; the library was dedicated on January 27th 1939. The first Petworth Library librarian is listed as being Charlotte H. Clark.
The building was embellished with a limestone water table and quoining, dentil molding along the cornice and ornate classically inspired door surround featuring Ionic columns surmounted by a wide entablature and crowned by two decorative urns. The building’s design was intended to give the impression of a “substantial, comfortable home, rather than a formal institution.”
Wyeth included indirect lighting in the reading rooms, a specially planned entrance designed for functionality and easy surveillance of patrons entering and exiting, a built-in filing system in the staff offices and fireplaces in the reading rooms. Within the first two weeks of operation the library circulated 17,950 books! After 6 weeks the librarian issued stats showing that the branch’s 33,000 volume collection only provided four books for every registered patron! At that time, more than 9,000 adults and children were registered as borrowers. During WWII the library served as a civilian defense station holding air-raid warden meetings and first aid training – it was the most active library and the second largest producer of Red Cross emergency sewing in DC.
During 1948-49 4,494 patrons registered as members of the library and 199,616 books were borrowed; the lending collection was 51,738 books and the reference collection 1,420 volumes. The library also housed 220 current periodicals and had a “Linguaphone Room” that offered records in French, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Portuguese, Hebrew and English. Pretty impressive!
I don’t have a photo of the building before the renovations started but this was taken in May 2010 ….. once the exterior was cleaned up there was extensive work to be done on the interior.
The library was re-opened in March 2011 . Click on any photo to see more detail – I was really impressed with the restoration work.The entry foyer has a giant neighborhood street map on the floor: