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Georgetown Library to reopen

By Philip Kennicott

Two Washington landmarks were gutted by fire on April 30, 2007. The city pledged to rebuild them both, and in June of last year the first of them, Eastern Market, reopened. On Monday, the Georgetown Library will also reopen its doors.

The Georgian-style brick building looks handsome once again. At a cost of $17.9 million, it has been entirely rebuilt inside, with substantial improvements and as much expansion as the building and the historically sensitive site can accommodate. Almost all of the original mahogany wood work was lost in the fire, but it has been carefully reproduced (in maple) and stained to match. A mezzanine-level space in the central entry hall, not accessible to the public, was removed, opening up windows and flooding the main atrium with light. A new stairwell, of modern design, elegantly connects the public space.

New rooms were added by carving out the basement and remaking the formerly unfinished attic under the pitched roof. The latter area, which seamlessly matches other interior spaces (and reuses some of the salvaged wood work), houses the Peabody Collection, a trove of historic material relating to Georgetown. Peabody Collection reading space is lit by dormer windows, the ceilings are painted a pastel shade, and an elevator--to keep everything ADA accessible--has been carefully fitted in to give access to the new third floor.

The basement has also been refinished by excavating 18 inches of headroom and extending under the newly rebuilt reading terrace on the south side. New rooms extend under the front of the building as well. Access to the downstairs space is through a wide central stairwell that leads from the atrium to the basement. A public meeting room runs most of the width of the building on the Wisconsin Avenue side of the basement.

Creating new spaces has taken some of the pressure off the old rooms.

"We had junked it up, pretty much," says DC Chief Librarian Ginnie Cooper. New lighting fixtures replace old and drab institutional florescent lights. By removing walls, and moving shelving away from windows, the library feels airier and lighter. Reading spaces aren't as cluttered as they appear in old pictures. And yet Cooper says the collection, which with the exception of the Peabody materials had to be rebuilt from scratch, is no smaller that it was.

Unfortunately, the kids' space could have been much improved if the building design hadn't been negatively impacted by foolish conceits about historic design which determined the fenestration of the basement wall on the south side. That wall, which is new, is below grade and faces a simple but pleasantly terraced grass slope (which will make a nice outdoor amphitheater). It is all but invisible to anyone except those who make an effort to walk around to the back of the library and see it. But for some inexplicable reason, it has small, historically "appropriate" window cuts, greatly diminishing the feeling of space in the room and the amount of light.

Why put in windows better suited to 1900 than 2010, on an entirely new wall that is almost hidden from normal view? This is where the passion for historic design consistency becomes purely irrational and self-defeating. No one except for children and library patrons will see this space. Contemporary floor-to-ceiling windows would minimize the basement feeling of this mostly subterranean room. It would create a more appealing flow between interior and exterior areas. There are certain ideas in architecture, like certain improvements in dentistry, that are entirely welcome. Giving kids light is one of them. Shame on pedants who put fantasies of old brick above good design.

The architects on this otherwise impressive project were Martinez & Johnson. The building opens on Monday, with a grand opening celebration for the community on October 23.

By Philip Kennicott  | October 14, 2010; 10:52 AM ET
Categories:  Architecture, Philip Kennicott, Reviews  
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