Southeast Library History

Southeast Library History

Southeast Library

Southeast Neighborhood Library, one of three Carnegie-funded libraries in D.C. and the second neighborhood library built, proved to be one of the library system's busiest from its opening on Dec. 8, 1922. The one-story brick building, designed by noted library architect Edward L. Titlton, sits at 403 7th St. SE on an irregularly shaped site in the Capitol Hill National Register District, purchased with $8,360 from Congress, and bolstered by $67,000 in construction funding from the Carnegie Corporation.

Southeast's start

Southeast Library began to take root at the Central Library's dedication at Mount Vernon Square in 1903. On that day, Andrew Carnegie offered to provide an additional $350,000 to build branch libraries throughout the city as needed. It took the District seven years to secure congressional approval to build the first Neighborhood Library in Takoma Park. And although the Library Board of Trustees requested a library in Southeast in 1917, it was not until June 1921 that Congress finally appropriated money to purchase a site for the new branch. The legislation also authorized the use of $50,000 of Carnegie's donation for building costs. As was his policy, Carnegie's money came with the stipulation that Congress supply operating and maintenance costs equal to at least 10 percent of the cost of the building.

The architect and his design

Edward L. Tilton (1861-1933), a native of New York who trained at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, designed the Southeast Neighborhood Library.  A friend of Andrew Carnegie's personal secretary James Bertram, Tilton was well placed in the lucrative business of designing numerous Carnegie-funded libraries across the country. Tilton advertised himself as a proficient library designer who could promise completion of his buildings on or under budget. By 1905, he had designed five libraries for Carnegie-funded projects. In 1920, Tilton took a partner, Alfred T. Githens, and continued his work with libraries. The firm of Tilton & Githens won the American Institute of Architect's (AIA) Gold Medal for its public library in Wilmington, Del., in 1930. Thus, Tilton was one of the premier designers of Carnegie libraries, applying his vast knowledge and study of library design to the planning of the Southeast Branch in 1922.

The new branch was dedicated with much fanfare on the evening of Dec. 8, 1922. Several community representatives spoke, including the presidents of the Southeast Washington Citizens' Association and the East Washington Citizens' Association. D.C.'s public librarian, Dr. George Bowerman, and the president of the Board of Library Trustees also spoke, praising the forward step accomplished by the opening of this second neighborhood library. The dedication appeared to have been a perfect platform for the suggestion of a third branch in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood.

Tilton designed the Southeast Neighborhood Library specifically for its irregular triangular-shaped site. The building presented a monumental neoclassical style adorned by a massive, pedimented entrance portico supported on paired Corinthian columns. Large-scale semicircular arched window openings flanked the main entrance that contained double-leaf entry doors surmounted by a multi-light transom. A stone water table divided the base of the building, which was accentuated by modest window openings, while the upper story was well illuminated by semicircular arched window openings along the north and south elevations. The building was covered by a shallow hipped roof clad in slate shingles.

The interior consisted of a main floor divided into a delivery and stack room, librarian's office, reference room and two large reading rooms -- one for adults and one for children. A fireplace created the traditional Victorian home-like atmosphere in the children's room. The rooms were furnished by the Library Bureau with an octagonal delivery desk, shelving, desks, chairs and tables in light wood with a greenish finish. The ground floor was occupied by a teachers' room, two club or meeting rooms that could be combined into one, a stack room, staff offices and janitor's quarters. A mezzanine level provided additional work space for patrons and staff.

A bustling location

The library opened with a collection of some 5,000 volumes and 75 periodicals. It was expected that the collection would be frequently supplemented by deliveries from the already overcrowded central library, which at that time contained nearly 250,000 volumes. The branch was set to be open most weekdays from noon to 9 p.m., on Wednesdays from noon to 3 p.m., and on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. The staff consisted of branch librarian Frances S. Osborne, a children's librarian, an assistant, a page and a janitor.

The Southeast library was immediately successful, with an average daily circulation of 550 books during its first two weeks of operation. A growing concern was the demand for juvenile literature; at the time of its opening, the library had only a modest collection. Nearly 1,400 extra books had to be transferred to Southeast from the Central Library to meet the demand. By the end of June 1923, after only seven months of operation, the library had circulated 86,822 books and registered 3,904 patrons.

The book collection had grown during the same period from the initial 5,000 volumes to nearly 8,000 through purchases, gifts, transfers and borrowed books. On Jan. 4, 1937, the Southeast Branch experienced its largest one-day circulation count—1,777 books. The library quickly took on an important community and educational role within the neighborhood, offering a quiet and safe place for school children to study after school hours. The large meeting rooms also provided a centralized location for community meetings.

After World War II, the branch served a population of 20,419 persons within a half-mile radius. The area surrounding the library was generally residential with a busy retail district nearby. Since its opening, however, the neighborhood character of the community had slowly been encroached upon by the construction of government buildings on Capitol Hill. In 1947, the area served by the Southeast Branch encompassed 12 public schools, four parochial schools, the Friendship Settlement House, Providence Hospital, the Naval Gun Factory and the Marine Barracks.

Changes over the years

The branch has undergone several interior alterations over the years, including the 1928 removal of an unused central stairway in the children's room and the continuous rearrangement of bookcases and furniture. In 1942, the bookcases on the main floor were shifted so the area could be divided into a front and rear sections for adult and juvenile books. Also in 1942, the basement floor was lent for Civilian Defense. New block linoleum was laid on the main floor and additional bookcases in the adult department shifted to the north side to improve reading conditions. In 1982, an intensive renovation was undertaken, returning the interior layout to its original plan. To serve the community better, a handicap access ramp and elevator were installed, as was new lighting.

By the early 1970s, the Southeast Branch was serving a population of 80,700 in the immediate vicinity. The population of the area included the largest concentration of public housing residents in the city. By 1971, the book collection totaled 57,610 volumes, and the average weekly attendance in the branch's reading rooms was approximately 700. At the time, the library offered a number of programs for school children, picture book hours and a film series. Between April 1970 and March 1971, 180 community programs were offered at the neighborhood library, ranging from poetry readings to adult education classes.

In the spring of 2007, Southeast Neighborhood Library was the recipient of Library Journal/American Library Association funding and in-kind donations from a variety of library vendors. This resulted in another major interior renovation. Alterations included:

  • Removing the wall separating the children’s room from the adult reading area.
  • Lifting the ceiling — lighting was updated and improved and sound-dampening panels installed, refurbishing all of the original wood.
  • Replacing the circulation desk.
  • Adding a built-in information desk. 

One of the highlights of the renovation was the installation of the shelving endcaps with quotes that complement the original fireplace tiling depicting scenes from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Southeast today

Today, Southeast is proud to maintain a collection consistent with DCPL’s system-wide philosophy. The most popular genres are children’s and mysteries followed by new fiction and political and economic young adult titles informational titles. Popular non-book items are feature films on DVD and music CDs. Preschool programs and infant/toddler lap sits are quite popular and well attended by parents and caregivers.

Friends of the Southeast Neighborhood Library, a volunteer support organization established in September of 1982, provides fundraising support in the form of a biannual book sale. The Friends also act as advocates for the Southeast branch, testifying to the Board of Library Trustees and the City Council when necessary.