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From Glass Gem To Bunker: A D.C. Library's Sad Shift

When the District's troubled library system started tearing down decrepit old branch libraries with the promise of snazzy, modern replacements, part of the justification for the demolitions was that the old buildings were outmoded, expensive to operate and eyesores that repelled potential visitors.

Certainly the library in Shaw in northwest Washington fit that bill. Long derided by neighborhood residents as a post-riots bunker that said volumes about the city's attitude toward its citizens, the library was a forbidding example of Brutalism, the school of architecture that specialized in unbroken expanses of concrete, literally walled off from the people the building was meant to serve.

So when D.C. libraries director Ginnie Cooper presented Shaw residents with plans for a translucent, glass-encased, jewel of a new library, the reaction was generally enthusiastic. (The National Capital Planning Commission, generally no friend of creative or unusual design, loved it.) Here's that original design:

But the celebration didn't last very long. With the cost of construction materials soaring by the minute, and with the libraries facing yet another budget crunch, Cooper has had to go back to her architects and seek revisions. And so this is what the residents of Shaw have now been presented with as the new plan for their library. Gone is the open and transparent feel of the place. Gone is the sense that this is a library that is welcoming, safe, and representative of a real commitment to the neighborhood.

Most shocking and most disappointing: The new plan bears a remarkable and disturbing resemblance to the much-hated old Watha T. Daniel branch building that was demolished four years ago. Note the slit windows, and the similarity between those prison-like windows and the windows in the latest version of the plan for the new library.

(Photos courtesy of the D.C. Library Renaissance Project.)

Shaw activists are up in arms over the changes. When the revised plans were made public, it became clear that "The new library had devolved to the 'bunker' feel of the old library,
without explanation," says Robin Diener, director of Ralph Nader's D.C. Library Renaissance Project.

Hold on, says Cooper, arguing that things aren't quite as bad as the architect's rendering make them out to be. "It's true that the skin of the building is no longer translucent," she tells me. "But the idea was that this might have a better chance of standing the test of time." The kind of glass that made up the building's skin in the original plan--channel glass--is expensive and doesn't hold up well, Cooper said. (Though it is popular among library architects in an era when library planners put a premium on openness and transparency in building design.) D.C. library officials estimated the cost of the channel glass in the Shaw project to be at least $1.5 million. "Channel glass is difficult to fabricate and install well - each curved piece is joined with insulation blown into the channel," Cooper says. "Because of this difficulty, this cost will likely increase."

Despite all that, Cooper says Shaw residents' objection to the replacement of the glass exterior with fabricated metal panels "is an excellent point and one we agree with wholeheartedly." She says she has asked the architects to come back with another revision, looking at alternative materials that might recreate the glowing look of the original plan, though not necessarily with glass.

Cooper says the move away from glass was driven in part by the increased cost of the project stemming from the discovery that Metro has both a tunnel and a large vent under and abutting the library site, making it more expensive to do construction there.

As for the slit windows, Cooper says she shared the concern that the new drawing makes it look as if the library is seeking to pay homage to the prison-like windows on the old Watha T. Daniel Library. Not true, she says. "Few of us are eager to recall the old building," Cooper says. "These windows are much, much larger than the old windows." (As she wrote to Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Alex Padro, "The smallest of the windows are nearly four times larger than in the windows in the old building.")

The tall, narrow shape of the windows stems from the fact that "we librarians often want to put bookshelves up against walls, so we often end up with that long shape to windows."

Cooper says she has asked the architects to come back with more windows.

"Our goal is to have a jewel in the neighborhood," she says, with as much glass as possible. A new plan is expected to be presented to Shaw residents at a community meeting Sept. 4. Construction is still slated to begin before the end of this year, with reopening of the library in spring of 2010.

By Marc Fisher |  August 27, 2008; 8:51 AM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

Come on people, you are pissed about windows and concrete? 1 - you'll never use the library anyway. 2 - You all know that many of the residents of that neighborhood (and the entire district of confusion for that matter) have already seen those "slit" type windows, from the inside...of their, what's the beef?

Posted by: iamprepared | August 27, 2008 9:28 AM

I am outrageously mad about this. The city lets its employees who live out of "state" steal over $50M from us and we are left with these gd stoopid decisions. GD!

Posted by: johng1 | August 27, 2008 9:49 AM

iamprepared, you know nothing about that area. It has changed dramatically over the last five years. Unbelievable change.

Posted by: johng1 | August 27, 2008 9:52 AM

The photo of the library is from the DC Library Renaissance Project, who borrowed them from me. Please cite the original source.

They also are covered by a Creative Commons license prohibiting commercial use, which means that if I were to enforce my copyright with the same strictness as your company, I'd send you a threatening email asking you to remove it. :-)

Posted by: Rob Goodspeed | August 27, 2008 9:57 AM

Hmm. I got an email from Alex Padro yesterday saying the glass was back in the design. Here's the text:

I am pleased to report that at a meeting I attended this afternoon in Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans' office, at which DC Public Library director Ginnie Cooper, architect Peter Cook, and members of Evans' and Cooper's staff were present, the latest design for the new Shaw library was presented and once again, the building's facades are all glass.

Cooper is to be thanked for listening to the community's concerns and working with the architects to ensure the transparency that was so lauded when the initial design was presented in January was restored. The cost savings that will allow the building to be constructed as envisioned resulted from the use of frosted glass instead of the more expensive channel glass. I saw samples of the proposed glass and am confident that the dramatic transparency portrayed in the original renderings of the building will be achieved. The building can be built for the $9.5 Million budgeted.

According to Cooper and her team, ground will be broken for the new library this fall, possibly in October. Preconstruction work will begin on the site shortly. The building is scheduled to be completed in December 2009. The library, after being outfitted and having staff trained, is scheduled to open in March 2010.

I would like to thank Councilmember Evans for his support of the community's insistence that the jewel-like quality of the new building be achieved. His active engagement on this neighborhood issue is illustrative of his deep commitment to our neighborhood and helps explain why he enjoys such substantial loyalty from Shaw residents.

I would also like to thank the many residents of Shaw who signed petitions and told me to stand firm and insist that the new library be built as presented to the community. Your activism helped to make the reversal of DCPL's position possible.

Please plan to attend the final design meeting for the new Watha T. Daniel/Shaw Neighborhood Library on Thursday, September 4, 2008, at 6:30 PM at the interim Watha T. Daniel/Shaw Neighborhood Library, 945 Rhode Island Avenue, NW, to see the final designs.

Posted by: ex-shaw | August 27, 2008 9:58 AM

I think we need more of an education chief and a director who knows how to bring in private-public partnership.

When the plans were having trouble, this would have been the opportunity to bring in private enterprise. Mayor Williams wanted a world class system that had busienss inside the eeucational facilities that we traditionally called libraries. That way they are more appealing to individuals and the revenue/rent helps keep cost down.

That innovative thinking is lost under this chief...and that is what is needed to sheppard the library program through the next face. And create programs that work in step with our schools community.

The Distrct has adequate management with Ms. Cooper but we need phenomally leadership during this time.

Posted by: Cooper No | August 27, 2008 10:36 AM

Cooper No, I respectfully disagree. I think that most of the improvements that the Library has seen has been because of the Cooper's leadership.

In general I am against private public partnerships. On a few occasions, and in a few articles, I have read Cooper's comments about business in libraries. The revenue models don't always work as anticipated.

The Library still has a way to go. But I think that your comments about what a Library should accomplish are very limited.

Posted by: Cooper Yes | August 27, 2008 10:46 AM

They could probably substitute the chanel glass for ETFE. Thats the stuff they've been using at the olympics. Its transparent, light, durable, and a less expensive alternative.

Posted by: Art | August 27, 2008 11:18 AM

The Watha T. library should be the start of rebuilding what should be an attractive central hub of residential, civic and office activity around the Shaw/Howard metro station. There's no reason why the area around the Shaw/Howard metro shouldn't experience the sort of development and growth (albeit on a smaller scale) seen at Columbia Heights, Chinatown, U St. and starting to be seen at Petworth.

Let's not screw it up by taking the cheap way out and building something that is 2nd rate and unattractive. Anything short of a monumental building that we can all be proud of will be a failure.

Posted by: ML | August 27, 2008 11:21 AM

It's all well and good to provide nice library buildings. I was happy when the Southeast branch was renovated. I just wish the city library system spent as much time stocking these building with books. Probably half of the books that used to be in the SE branch never made it back.

Posted by: mary | August 27, 2008 11:34 AM

The public private partnership has worked very well so far with the renovation and slated annex for the Montgomery school in Shaw. The co-location of KIPP:DC into the Scott Montgomery building has meant that renovations to the public school that were sorely needed were finally addressed this year.

The interim library gets a lot of use, no reason to believe that the permanent building will be poorly used - especially only a half block from a new future middle school. Pity the new Shaw middle school could not be the site of the new library as well. Poor planning and vision from all the powers that be.

Posted by: Friend of Monty | August 27, 2008 11:34 AM

iamprepared. you are ignorant! and if this is the district of confusion, then carry your stoopid azz back to kansas some d*mn where!!!

Posted by: Anonymous | August 27, 2008 11:40 AM

Both designs look like office buildings. Old design = cutting edge in 2000. New design = cutting edge in 1960. It doesn't seem that either necessarily translates into a welcoming design for children and families.

Posted by: JoeSchmoe | August 27, 2008 12:17 PM

My take? The building should be pleasing to the eye and functional in it's environment. That being said, is the glass bullet-proof?

Posted by: DC Voter | August 27, 2008 12:19 PM

The architectural quibbling is like re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Unless something extraordinary happens, this library will be over-run by the homeless and made utterly unusable.

Posted by: 10th and O | August 27, 2008 12:22 PM

Recently there has been a flood of wildly inappropriate and sadly too often racist comments appearing on the site. It's time for the Post to take a more aggressive stance in monitoring the comment sections. "Posting standards," are just fanciful words if they are not enforced.

Posted by: CW | August 27, 2008 12:22 PM

Hey CW, you are right. Anyone that has thoughts that are not in full agreement with you should be banned. I nominate you for Czar.

Posted by: PC Police | August 27, 2008 12:33 PM

PC Police, there used to be a term, it was called civility, that's what my pastor called it growing up. How bizarre that you take a fundamentally Christian concept and declare it "PC." I suspect you know nothing about Christianity or civility.

I don't even know how the term "Czar" relates to Christianity in the US, so I hope you enlighten us.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 27, 2008 1:51 PM

I agree with Cooper No.

Cooper doesn't want to listen to the community, is scared shi@#%** of being called racist getting in her way of doing her job, and in general does not serve the city.

Fenty, BOLT should be your next target.

Posted by: Cooper NO.NO.NO | August 27, 2008 2:21 PM

I think you are right Cooper No No No. She must be afraid of being called racist. That must be why she came to DC from Brooklyn's library. Let's focus on the real issues and stop going off on baseless accusations.

Posted by: LOL | August 27, 2008 4:03 PM

Well I have a question to ask you, WHY had Cooper not instituted a real IT program?

7 years ago I was reserving Arlington County books online, 7 years later in DC I "can" do this online, but the books never arrive and the librarians claim no reserve exists.

I haven't heard anything about these kinds of serious infrastructure changes that will bring the DC libraries up to the status of suburban libraries of 10 years ago.

Then also there's the homeless issue. The DC government will have to address that in a comprehensive way. I was violently threatened by a vagrant who blocked the entrance to a DC library at about 9am on a saturday morning. In 1988 while in college I was pushed out of the men's room at the MLK library by homeless people who were doing something so weird that the police were called- my guess is they were gang-raping someone and I don't say that lightly. These people are, on the whole, violent and unpredictable inside the library facilities and hostile to people who pay the library taxes.

So, first, handle the IT issues, secondly, limit the use of the libraries to taxpayers with a legitimate reason to be there. Until our society accepts that "legitimate reasons" can be defined then the libraries will be unsafe for and avoided by DC students and families.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 27, 2008 5:04 PM

what does that have to do with this article. I guess it is back to the "what ever sticks" approach. Your reliving your 1988 story says more about you than the library. "1988?" "These people?"

Posted by: Huh | August 27, 2008 9:33 PM

Ridiculous. "Mayor" Fenty & the council toss away $611 million on a baseball stadium, lose $50 million + on the real estate "tax refund" scam, lose another $20-30 million on the summer "jobs" program, & yet they decide to scrimp here & build a jail-like building instead of a modern building with lots of glass & light.
Citizens of Washington - you get what you vote for. We deserve better than Fenty.

Posted by: Freddie Mick | August 27, 2008 11:25 PM

Marc, the library design pictured in your post looks a lot like the Ellen Coolidge Burke branch library in Alexandria. It was built back in the '60s-'70s when that style was fashionable, and it's still around.

Posted by: Tom T. | August 28, 2008 11:18 AM

The Shaw Library Study Group invites YOU to attend a pre-library design meeting TOMORROW, Thursday, August 28 at Old Dominion Brew House, 6:30PM.

Come out for sprites and bites and meet with other Ward 2 residents who will be gearing up for the so-called final library design meeting on September 4.

WHAT: Pre-Library Design Planning Meeting
WHEN: Thursday, August 28, 6:30-8:30pm
WHERE: Old Dominion Brew House, 1219 9th Street, NW DC
WHY: Planning for the September 4 DCPL-hosted "final" design meeting
RSVP: Chris O. 202-536-4065,

Posted by: DC Library Dynamos | August 28, 2008 2:19 PM

Ginnie Cooper has been doing a great job. She is totally focused on the library's mission of building community. Stop bad-mouthing DCPL and Ginnie! Why don't you point out many of the positive things that have happened under Ginnie's leadership in the past two years?

Posted by: librarian | August 28, 2008 4:15 PM

These days, it doesn't matter what you build, modern libraries and librarians don't believe in books. Weve just opened a new library in Lexington Park. It has lots of computers, very nice bathrooms a coffee/snack bar and a very neat aquarium... but hardly any books for serious reading. Oh well, it does serve as a nice study hall for the kids.

Posted by: Lex Pk | August 28, 2008 8:15 PM

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