Takoma Park DC Library recaptures the past

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When the scaffolding on the Takoma Park DC library comes down this month, the newly renovated interior will match the elegance of the exterior. State-of-the-art technology has been married to the elegant style that recaptures the library’s 1911 heritage as a Carnegie library. The grand re-opening will be held on March 21. (Photos by Julie Wiatt)

On rare occasions, a renovation project turns into a work of art. The Takoma Park DC library, reopening this month, is one such case.
Built in 1911 it was the first branch library in the metropolitan Washington system. Andrew Carnegie himself donated $40,000 for its construction, along with a basic blueprint that was replicated across the country.

The library became a popular gathering spot. Few changes were made to the outside of the building over the decades. Inside, however, much was altered. The interior suffered  from several makeovers that obscured the oak woodwork and elegant lines. The front entryway was turned into a barricade.

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Workmen put the finishing touches on the interior – hanging lamps and clearing away the last of the debris. The open entranceway is a marked contrast to the old.

As the building aged, the roof leaked, parts of the ceiling collapsed, and the systems failed to keep pace with the technological advances necessary to library services.

Even so it was surprising that the Takoma Park branch would be the first one chosen to undergo a complete renovation. (Georgetown with its devastated Peabody Room is next.),

Last fall, Takoma’s books were packed up and placed in storage and a bookmobile was parked on Fourth Street to serve the neighborhood for the duration of the renovation.

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The restored woodwork emphasizes the elegant lines notable in a Carnegie library.

Chris Wright stepped in as Project Manager. His passion is history–he dug into the records in an effort to respect the architecture while modernizing the system. He found the original drawings, hired master woodcarver Robert O. Greene to create woodwork and furniture that matches the originals, uncovered a skylight hidden by a painted ceiling, and oversaw the work of Forrester Construction to bring the project in a month ahead of schedule.

The staff is thrilled. Rachel Meit, the children’s libarian,  said, “we’re even more exicted than the neighbors to be back in such a gorgeous space. Chris couldn’t have picked better people – they had the vision and the work ethic to get the job done early.”

Working in the library pre-renovation was difficult. Meit described trying to focus on programs while being diverted by a leak in the ceiling.

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Project Manager Chris Wright was responsible for recreating the appearance of the original Carnegie library.

After months spent in the tight quarters of the basement and bookmobile, they look forward to moving back in. But it has created a camaraderie among the staff. Lindsay Halkola joins Rachel as children’s librarian and Heather Petsche is the newly appointed young-adult librarian under the supervision of head librarian Helen Hiltz.

Aside from the elegant new interior, the first thing patrons will notice is the prominance given to new technologies. Every table has computer hookups and the entire building has wi-fi.

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The DVD and audiobook collections are front and center. Self-contained audiobooks called Playaways come with their own batteries and earphones that don’t require an MP3 player.

One example of the merging of the past and future is the computer tables. According to Wright, the Mission-style tables (and chairs) are based on drawings of the original furniture, but the tables sprout plugs for computer hookups. “We had all the original furniture plans so we were able to mimic the style of the original furniture, even though we didn’t have any of the pieces left. It’s one of the neat things about being a library. We keep all the drawings.”

When Wright chose cork for the floor it was partly based on its value as a “green” material, but also because it was the traditional flooring used in the early 1900s.

Ultimately it is the woodworking that captures the eye. The key is the white oak, explains Greene, who was charged with recreating all the additional woodwork. “It is quartered to show off the beautiful figures in the wood.” Once the dark finish had been stripped off the original moldings, the wood grain is shown in all its splendor.

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BEFORE: Upon entering the library, you faced a glass box and maze-like path around the information desk. The renovation has stripped it all away. (Photo Courtesy of DC Public Library)

Most impressive is the vestibule replacing the “fortress” that has been removed from the entrance. As Wright tells the story, “The original plans show this amazing vestibule, so we put it back and Greene did a spectacular job building it.” The central desk is a replica of the original.

When it came to choosing the color of the wall paint, Wright acknowledges a little help from the Voice. He figured out which of the paint chips were the original color “based on the reference to green paint in your Voice article (April 2008). ”

“When asked about the enduring nature of Carnegie library style, Wright remembered a recent visit to California: “I went to the Carnegie library in Noe Valley in San Francisco last year and it’s amazing how smiliar it is to this one. Same floor plan, door in the same place, wider adult area, with children’s area in back and a fireplace.’

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AFTER: The front entrance is now graced with a wooden vestibule and an information desk based on the original drawings uncovered by Chris Wright and faithfully recreated by Robert Greene in quarter-cut oak. The re-discovered skylight has been opened up.

It is worth remembering that the Takoma library was nearly lost in 1965. The powers that be were insisting on the need to tear down the building and replace it with a modern structure several blocks away.

The neighborhood resisted and succeeded in saving the building. Luckily this time around, the library system appreciates the treasure it has.

With the renovation completed, the library will be in great shape to celebrate its centennial in 2011.

Grand Re-opening Celebration

Saturday, March 21: 10a.m. to 3p.m.

The Takoma Park DC staff welcomes the neighborhood to the Grand Re-opening on March 21, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Highlights include storytelling at 10:30 a.m. with Ginnie Cooper, the Chief Librarian, and a second storytime with Rachel Meit at 11:30 a.m. In the afternoon, Chris Wright will discuss the history behind the renovation..

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.

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