Benning Library History
The Dorothy I. Height/Benning Library, designed by architecture firm Davis Brody Bond Aedas, opened to the public on April 5, 2010.
The two-story, 22,000-square-foot library at 3935 Benning Road NE features:
- Children’s program room
- Separate reading areas for adults, teens and children
- Comfortable seating for 200 customers
- Large program room for up to 100 people
- Two 12-person conference rooms
- Public art by Ward 7 artists
The original Benning library, a one-story brick-and-concrete building, was designed by architect Clark T. Harmon with the District's Office of the Supervising Architect and opened to the public on May 18, 1962. The library, built at a cost of $500,000, was the sixth in a series of branch libraries funded under the D.C. Public Works Program.
The library's neighborhood is east of the Anacostia River near Benning Road. Settled by blacks following the Civil War, the area eventually came to be known as Benning Heights after early landowner William Benning, who helped finance the wooden bridge across the Anacostia. After World War II, the area began to grow, becoming a densely populated suburb by 1960.
'The strictest economy and simplicity'
The Benning Neighborhood Library was first mentioned as part of the D.C. Public Works Program in 1956. Several other library projects took precedence over Benning, however. In 1961, Congress appropriated funds for construction, but progress was impeded by the Commission of Fine Arts, which objected to the proposed design. In a letter to Gen. Frederick J. Clark, the D.C. Engineering Commissioner, Chairman David E. Finley wrote that the commission felt "the designs of the building ... are not regarded as adequate nor are they in accord with the architectural standards held appropriate to this city." Another critic of the design exclaimed upon seeing the drawings, "It looks like an industrial building!"
In defense, Director of Buildings and Ground J.A. Blaser said D.C. policy required "the strictest economy and simplicity in construction." Although the department attempted to alter the plans in accordance with the commission's wishes, they were in fact "unable to change the design," and proceeded without the commission's approval.
With reinforced concrete, a red-brick face and a facade centered on a large display window, the library's design followed the same general architectural program as the five previous branch libraries built under the D.C. Public Works Program.
An important role
The original Benning building incorporated 18,000 square feet and could accommodate more than 50,000 books. The first floor contained a lobby, children's room, adult reference-reading room, the public book stacks, a circulation desk and a soundproof listening booth. The ground floor contained book storage space, the heating plant, and a community meeting room. The interior was lit by fluorescent lighting, and the walls consisted of painted cinder block. The building's structure allowed for the future addition of a second story.
Over the years, the Benning Neighborhood Library has played an important role in the community. The Friends of the Benning Neighborhood Library, a volunteer library support group established in 1983, offers aid to the library in equipping the branch, holding fundraising events, and advocating use of the library.