Takoma Park Library History

Takoma Park Library History

restored fireplace at Takoma Park

The Takoma Park neighborhood received the first purpose-built Neighborhood Library in the history of the DC Public Library system on Nov. 17, 1911. Prior to receiving funding for the public library branch, Takoma Park residents were served by a private subscription library. The current Takoma Park Branch at 416 Cedar St. NW was funded through a $40,000 contribution by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. One of four Carnegie-funded library buildings in Washington, D.C., the Takoma Park Library represented the beginning of a system of branches that today encompasses 25 branch libraries and one central library.

The one-story Renaissance Revival style brick building was designed by the Washington-based architectural firm of Marsh & Peter. The building has continuously served this upper-Northwest community since 1911, and remains a community focal point. The Takoma Park Neighborhood Library stands in the Takoma Park National Register Historic District designated in 1983. The building received an extensive makeover in 2009.

Community history

The suburb of Takoma Park, located in the northern section of the District, began as a real estate venture in 1883 when Benjamin Franklin Gilbert purchased 90 acres spanning the Metropolitan Branch of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. By the 1890s, the area had grown into a popular commuter suburb, offering the convenience of streetcar service to the city's center combined with the natural, healthful surroundings of a semi-rural setting. At the turn of the 20th century, the burgeoning population of Takoma Park created a demand for additional services that residents had formerly received in the city center. One such amenity was the convenience of a nearby library.

The relative wealth and high level of education in the community made possible the organization of a local library, privately run and funded through community subscription. This small lending library, known as the Takoma Club and Library, was opened May 1, 1900, at numbers 10, 12 and 14 Oak Ave., across from the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad station. The library originally held approximately 100 volumes, growing to 600 by 1903. This library served the community until 1911, when the present public library branch was opened.

Financial path to a new library

Meanwhile, the Washington Public Library's Board of Trustees had begun studying the possibility of placing branch libraries in various locations throughout the city. A committee on branches was formed, headed by Charles J. Bell. At the dedication of the Central Library on Jan. 7, 1903, library philanthropist Andrew Carnegie offered an additional $350,000 to "build Neighborhood Library buildings from time to time as the trustees may call upon me to do so." As was his policy, the offer required that the District of Columbia provide the sites and also pay for reasonable maintenance and operating costs once the libraries were built.

Two efforts were made to secure authorization from Congress to accept Carnegie's offer. First was a bill (HR 14048) designed to permit the gradual construction of a number of library branches to form a public library system. The bill was passed by the House in 1904, but later defeated in the Senate. Congress feared that District of Columbia officials might proceed too quickly with the plan, thus adding too rapidly to the city's tax burden.

The second effort included a bill granting authority to establish the same neighborhood library system, one branch at a time, with the first neighborhood library in Takoma Park. This bill (S 6406) passed the Senate in June 1906. On Jan. 30, 1907, a hearing of the House District Committee's Subcommittee on Education, Labor and Charities convened to consider the new legislation. After testimony by representatives of the public library and Takoma Park's citizens, the committee failed to report the bill to the House for a vote, and thus allowed the resolution to die.

Takoma Park was chosen out of the 20 neighborhoods that applied as the location for the first neighborhood library in Washington. The residents had demonstrated their interest in and commitment to establishing a public library branch by their organized effort to obtain a site for the building, as well as by sustaining a subscription library for several years prior to applying for the public library branch. Other factors that were influential in Takoma Park's successful application to obtain the city's first public library branch included its remoteness from the central library and the close proximity of several large public schools.

After the second bill passed the Senate in 1906, the community got together and raised $1,800 to purchase a building site for the new library. They were confident that the House, which had already approved the first bill, would pass the new legislation. The chosen site was selected after careful consideration in cooperation with the staff of the Public Library. It was purchased on behalf of the neighborhood by the trustees of the Carnegie Library Association of Takoma Park, D.C., an organization formed to promote and support the establishment of the library branch. In a letter to Congress, the trustees described the property as "the most desirable one available in Takoma Park," with "a frontage of 67 feet on Cedar Street." The level site was centrally located one block from the railway station and the terminus of the trolley line.

The final obstacle in the establishment of the Takoma Park Neighborhood Library was overcome on April 4, 1910, when a newly introduced bill (S 4624/HR 16327) authorizing construction of the Takoma Park branch was approved by Congress. The bill provided for the acceptance of Carnegie's donation, the use of the donated site, the establishment of a Neighborhood Library on that site, and the establishment of a commission to supervise the erection of the branch along with provisions for the "suitable" maintenance of this branch.

After the passage of the bill, the process was speeded along with the designs completed by late 1910. The architectural firm of Marsh & Peter was retained to develop the design for the Takoma branch. William Johnston Marsh, the senior partner of the firm, was born and educated in Washington. His architectural training consisted of several apprenticeships, the last of which was in the office of the noted architects Hornblower & Marshall. He left that office in 1898 to form a partnership with Walter Gibson Peter (1869-1945), a fellow Washingtonian trained at MIT and apprenticed to Smithmeyer & Pelz, A.B. Bibb, and Hornblower & Marshall. The firm of Marsh & Peter designed many important Washington landmarks, including the Evening Star Building (1899), Walter Reed Army Hospital (ca.1908), the Farmers and Mechanics Bank (1921-22), and the DAR Administration Building (1923). Marsh & Peter had been invited to participate in, although not awarded, the design competition for the Carnegie-funded Central Library of Washington, completed in 1903.

A library designed

Marsh & Peter designed an ornate Renaissance Revival style library building in a diminutive form for Takoma Park. The building's footprint measured only 58 by 85 feet. The one-story, hipped roof, brick and stone building was distinguished by its wide cornice articulated by dentil molding and frieze, and an imposing central entry surmounted by a semi-circular arched fanlight and flanked by Ionic pilasters. Two symmetrically balanced, semi-circular arched windows flanked the main entry.

restored vestibule at Takoma ParkThe interior of the library was designed to contain a main reading room (measuring 35 by 55 feet) at the front of the building, and a combined children's room/lecture hall (measuring 31 by 33 feet) at the rear. This multipurpose room at the rear incorporated a recessed alcove with a fireplace and raised platform for presentations. The basement space was occupied by a librarian's restroom, a small kitchen, a workroom and a living room for the janitor. The interior woodwork was rendered in quartered light oak and finished in a silver gray shade. The walls were painted in various shades of ivory, white and soft green. Particular attention was paid to the lighting, heating and ventilation of the building with the most current technology being employed. In addition, an intercommunicating telephone system was installed.

The new branch was intended to serve the citizens of Takoma Park, who were mainly employed with the federal government, their children and the residents of the densely populated surrounding areas. These areas included Brightwood, Park View, Petworth, Saul's Addition, Sligo and Forest Glen. Two large public schools located in Takoma Park and Brightwood also influenced the siting of the public library branch in Takoma Park, as it was hoped that the library would work in conjunction with the public schools to educate the youth of these neighborhoods.

Takoma Park Library opens

The Takoma Park Neighborhood Library opened Nov. 17, 1911, with many prominent speakers, including Theodore W. Noyes, president of the Library's Board of Trustees, Dr. George F. Bowerman, Head Librarian of the DC Public Library, Reverend Thomas C. Clark of the Takoma Park Presbyterian Church, and Colonel Gilbert C. Kniffen, a representative of the Takoma Park citizens group. The speakers praised the efforts of the community for obtaining the library with Dr. Bowerman predicting that it would become a "social and intellectual center of community life" in Takoma Park.

The branch opened with 3,871 volumes purchased or permanently transferred from the central library, which continued to supplement the branch collection. The first branch librarian was Alice Ramsburg, a former employee at the central library. She was assisted by a children's librarian, an assistant librarian and a janitor who lived in the basement.

The library quickly assumed a central role in the life of the community. In the first two weeks, three local organizations held meetings in the building's lecture hall. These were the Takoma Park Citizens Association, the Boy Scouts and the Home Interest Club. Community use of the library peaked in 1925 when 230 meetings and classes were held for 5,716 patrons. Book circulation was promising in the first seven months, reaching 23,663 volumes.

However, the operation of Washington's first neighborhood library was not always smooth. Less than a year after the opening, Congress reduced the annual appropriation to a meager $1,560, necessitating the discharging of staff and a 20 percent reduction in the branch librarian's salary. The hours of operation were also reduced to three days a week, 2 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Over the years

Over the years, a combination of federal and private money has maintained and improved the Takoma Park Neighborhood Library. In 1940, a five-year building renovation program was approved with an allocation of $21,500, intended to update equipment and provide for routine building maintenance. Plans to replace the aging, crowded branch with a new library building were discussed in the late 1960s and early 1970s as a part of the District's Capitol Improvements Program, but never came to fruition. In 1977, air conditioning was installed, but otherwise the building remained much as originally designed by Marsh & Peter in 1911, until 2009, when the building received an extensive makeover.

The Friends of Takoma Park Neighborhood Library, a volunteer support organization formed in 1982, sponsors fundraising initiatives and special events at the library.