On Monday, the Northeast Neighborhood Library in Capitol Hill reopened after a $10 million modernization. Bringing it up to date required only a few major alterations, but the real challenge was finding new life in the 82-year-old building.
The function of a library has shifted a few times since 1932, when the branch circulated its first book. This most recent renovation positions it as more of a “third place” for the public without abandoning its core purpose as a public resource. Whether residents come to hear a story, use a computer, or attend a community meeting, some of the branch’s 45,000 books are always in the background on built-in shelves.
Those shelves are emblematic of the way DCPL conducted the renovation. They’re original, designed for 1930s book sizes. Unfortunately books have become bigger, particularly picture books, so a big part of the collection no longer fit.
Rather than rip out the shelves, library officials chose to expand them 1.5 inches with matching walnut woodwork. They’re still not big enough for everything in the collection, but this kind of shrewd modification keeps the historic character without getting in the way of modern life.
When the city commissioned Albert Harris, the municipal architect from 1923-1934, to design the building, he did so in the Colonial Revival style. Since at least 1911, the Commission of Fine Arts had favored that style as a common look for DC’s public buildings. The modest materials used by far-flung Georgian architects like brick and painted wood meant the style could be built inexpensively. It was also in fashion, since the reconstruction of Williamsburg was prompting architects to search for their roots.
But the revival of Georgian architecture meant drawing inspiration from building types that don’t fit so well in an dense environment. Harris styled his building after mansions and courthouses that stood alone in fields.
On the site at 7th Street and Maryland Avenue NE, Harris’ tight composition left an empty lawn on the most prominent corner. In the renovation, the exterior architect, Bell Architects located a patio there, so that the library has a front porch. With WiFi, of course.
A path runs from the patio around the back to a glass-enclosed staircase in the rear. The previous staircase ran clumsily through the central room, creating awkward spaces on either side. The new staircase fits into the footprint of a disused garage. The stairway’s sunniness provokes the opposite sensation of the MLK Library’s windowless, dreary stairwells: you want to climb it and see what you can see from it.
The staircase solves two other problems the building had. One is that the original entry couldn’t be made ADA-accessible. The accessible door is in the glass tower, opposite the front door on 7th Street. Coming from either way, visitors enter into the same foyer and then into the library. What is effectively a single entrance shields the reading rooms from the noise of coming and going, so children can rush up to their spaces on the upper level and community members can visit the meeting room without disturbing patrons.
The lack of a good meeting room was the other problem before the renovation. Vines Architecture, who designed the interior, converted two underused rooms through discreet structural changes. New girders to hold up the mezzanine and basement ceilings converted what were once claustrophobic spaces into three public meeting rooms. This saved the airy rooms on the first and second floors for reading.
Other changes follow this trend of discreet interventions. The librarians wanted a more open space, so they could more easily monitor the rooms. The architects responded by placing the reference desk at the center of the building and cutting passages through the walls around it.
The cuts are low compared to the original doors, and the architects integrated them into the wood paneling, so you barely notice them. The things we take for granted nowadays, like good lighting, central air, and plenty of outlets are present, but not at the cost of the library’s coziness.
Beyond these quiet changes, the restoration had a light touch. The flaxen paint scheme and cork floor tiles are historically appropriate details that also suit contemporary expectations. The reading tables are recreations with one minor tweak: power strips. It’s striking how good design can serve radically different uses with only minor alterations.
Since the beginning of its capital campaign in 2006, library officials have rebuilt 10 of the 26 branches. With the opening of the Northeast Library, they will have renovated five historic buildings. Three planned projects remain: Woodridge, which is under construction, West End, and the Martin Luther King, Jr. central library.
As we consider how to renovate that building, the Northeast Neighborhood Library might offer guidance. Here, carefully chosen alterations have an impact that goes beyond their immediate function. An understanding of what was good about the historic fabric revealed what needed to change. It’s worth considering how much alteration is required to make a work of architecture better. A few little changes can do a lot of good.