The wilderness suburb becomes home to DC’s first branch library

One hundred years ago, the Takoma Park Citizens Committee took on the task of convincing the federal government to build a library here at the edge of DC.
The resulting Renaissance Revival building that graces the corner of Cedar Avenue and Fifth Street NW opened in 1911 as the first branch library of the District of Columbia library system.
It was no small task, but the committee had several factors in its favor.
The leading men of the community had formed the committee in 1889, just a few years after B.F. Gilbert began laying out Takoma Park. The goal was to influence civic development.
Success
Over the next two decades, it was the force behind turning the wilderness suburb into a thriving community. The list of accomplishments included:
  • Union Chapel, to provide for non-denominational church services and a meeting space,
  • Two elementary schools, one on Tulip in Maryland and the other on Dahlia in the District;
  • The annual Fourth of July celebration;
  • Streetlights and sidewalks on Carroll Ave;
  • The Cedar Street underpass to eliminate the at-grade-level railroad crossing.
  • The incorporation of Takoma Park as a city in Maryland (though it did not include the DC portion of the settlement).
But the library proved to be one of the more difficult, and only by patient persistence did they prevail.
Living in a neighborhood that lay half in Maryland and half in the District, committee members acquired plenty of experience navigating the politics of both jurisdictions.
The opportunity for a Takoma Park library arose in the wake of Andrew Carnegie’s $350,000 grant to build the District of Columbia main library (on K Street between 7th & 9th). At the 1903 dedication, Carnegie offered to fund additional branch libraries, and Takoma Park seized the opportunity.
According to local legend, Angus Lamond, a long-time Takoma Park resident, was a childhood friend of Carnegie and prevailed upon the Scot to make a specific grant of $40,000 for a branch library in Takoma Park. That set the ball in motion.
The grant only covered the construction costs. In keeping with Carnegie’s habit, he required the District to provide the land and to fund the ongoing operating expenses for books, personnel and maintenance.
The difficulty was that there was no real District government, and freeing up the money would require an Act of Congress, as the “national, state and city legislature for the District.” The Takoma Park Citizens Committee set to work.
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The Takoma Park DC Branch Library was constructed with a $40,000 grant from Andrew Carnegie. It opened on November 17, 1911. 

 

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Takoma Hall once stood on the site now occupied by the Takoma Metro entrance. As home to the Takoma Club and Library as well as a bowling alley, it was the center of the community in 1900.

 

Takoma Park already had a private library. Organized in 1900 as the Takoma Club and Library, its 600-book collection was housed in Takoma Hall, a two-story structure located next to the railroad tracks on what is now the Metro entrance. Since many members of the citizens committee were also subscribers, it was simple for them to join forces to take on Congress.
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This vintage photo shows the reading room of the Takoma Club and Library, which was organized in 1900. Its book collection served as the basis of the Takoma Park DC Branch Library.

Taking Action
While the House and Senate debated the issue, the citizens committee took action to secure a piece of land. They chose the “most desirable” 72′ by 120′ parcel on the corner of Cedar and Fifth, one block from the railroad station and trolley line.
The $1800 purchase price was paid for by subscription, with Angus Lamond listed as one of three “owners.”
After six years of jockeying back and forth, the Senate finally passed a resolution on April 4, 1910 that matched the House’s  earlier resolution to accept the Carnegie money. Allocated specifically for a branch library in Takoma Park, it stipulated that the annual federal conttribution for maintenance, salaries, and operating expenses could not exceed 10 percent of the construction cost (i.e. $4000).
Choosing an architect was relatively easy. William Johnston Marsh and his partner, Walter Gibson Peter, had participated in the design competition for the District’s original Carnegie library, but lost out. They had risen to prominence in  Washington with designs for Walter Reed Hospital and the Evening Star building on Pennsylvania and 11th.
Their concept of a one-story red brick building with hipped roof, Palladian doorway, and fan window fit well into the residential neighborhood.
The interior, done in shades of ivory white and soft green, was divided into two spaces: the front half, an adult reading room; and the back section, reserved for children, which could be converted to a lecture hall.

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 The library opened to great  hoopla on November 17, 1911, with 3,871 books (including those from Takoma Club) and a staff of four. The librarian earned $900 a year.
It quickly became the preferred gathering spot in town. Even after Mrs. Pratt and the other Maryland ladies lobbied succesfully for their own library across  the border in 1935, the Branch library has welcomed all regardless of residence.
Reviewing the library’s accounts turned up one amusing note that demonstrates how little times have changed. It reads: “In 1934, several small boys amused themselves by removing book cards from 100 books. With the help of a little girl and the voice of conscience in one small boy, the culprits were apprehended.”
The building and the surrounding landscape has
changed remarkably little in the years since 1911. The sliding door that once divided the two rooms is gone, but the fireplace alcove at the back remains, evoking the elegance of a Victorian living room.
In 1965, there was talk of the need to do away with the building and move the library to a larger, more central location on Georgia Avenue. In the end, no funding was available to put this plan into action. And fortunately for us,
the building continues to grace our community.
For more on the House and Garden tour, call 301-270-2831

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About the Author

Diana Kohn
Diana Kohn is president of Historic Takoma, Inc., which is dedicated to preserving and celebrating the heritage of both Takoma Park MD and DC. Diana is co-author of Images of America: Takoma Park, a photo history of the town.