Tenley-Friendship Library History

Tenley-Friendship Library History

The present Tenley-Friendship branch of the D.C. Public Library at 4450 Wisconsin Ave. N.W., was dedicated on October 27, 1960. The building represents the culmination of a long struggle by the community to update and expand an out-of-date, overcrowded facility. It was designed by architect Clark T. Harmon under the direction of the D.C. Department of Buildings and Grounds and constructed by the B.F. Rodney Company. The library building was erected with funds appropriated under the D.C. Public Works Program, which allotted $333,000 for construction of the two-story steel and brick facility. During the dedication program the building was described as an example of "modern functional architecture," with open versatile interior spaces. The library branch is supported by the Friends of Tenley-Friendship Library, the first of such "friends" groups established in the District of Columbia.

The first public library branch located in the Tenleytown area occupied a single room of the newly opened Bernard T. Janney School, which was built at Wisconsin Avenue and Albemarle Street N.W., in 1925. The library, opened in September 1926, was the result of citizen action mainly on the part of the Northwest Suburban Citizens Association (later the Friendship Citizens Association). Formed in 1892, this group of concerned residents was active in acquiring needed services for the neighborhood, including spearheading campaigns to establish three new schools, increase police and fire protection, and build recreation areas for the neighborhood. The D.C. Public Library agreed to pay the salary of the librarian and to furnish books if the community paid for janitorial services at night. The Janney PTA accomplished this by raising enough to pay a janitor two dollars each evening. The library's first librarian was Ada C. Cotton, who divided her time between the Chevy Chase and Tenley branches.

The community library soon outgrew its space at the Janney School. When the police department vacated its Sub-T building at 4539 Wisconsin Ave. N.W., in October 1927, the building was rehabilitated to accommodate the Tenley-Friendship branch of the public library. Two rooms on the left side of the building housed a collection of children's books, while on the right stood the librarian's desk and counter. The general library occupied the larger of the two rooms, which was furnished in 1930 with chairs, a settee and a lamp. The library's caretakers for nearly 20 years, David Carroll and his wife, occupied a second floor apartment over the library.

The Tenley Library remained in the reused police station for 32 years and underwent several renovations over the years, including the addition of green striped awnings, a new workroom and a flower garden in 1928-29. Between 1930 and 1934, the library's book collection grew from 5,281 to 8,912 volumes. Numerous local organizations supported the library, including the Department of Agriculture and the Chevy Chase Women's Club, which contributed plantings to the garden and window boxes. Streetcar improvements in the mid-1930s improved access to the library and sparked growth in the neighborhood. The construction of the McLean Gardens apartment complex in 1943 and the accompanying influx of 5,000 defense agency workers to the area increased the library's potential patronage, yet the library experienced a reduction in book circulation during World War II. This decline in patronage was attributed to an increased interest in current affairs and newspapers.

By the 1930s, citizens were agitating to get a new building for their busy public library branch. An abortive effort to obtain funds to build a new Tenley library was undertaken in 1935. The present site of the library was initially set aside by the Janney School for use by the public library in 1935, but without funds for construction, the property went unused. In 1938, funds were sought through the Public Works Administration (PWA) to pay for the new building, but they ultimately fell through when the PWA was dissolved. Nearly 20 years passed before further progress was made in the effort to obtain a new library in Tenleytown. In a 1951 survey of the old Tenley library, the overcrowded conditions were described as follows:

“Furniture has been kept to a minimum number of pieces, and indeed tables and chairs seem almost a luxury when the urgent need for shelving space and library apparatus is considered. ... During rush periods, particularly after-school hours, there is barely room to stand comfortably, let alone sit.”

In 1955, the Board of Education voted to transfer a small portion of the Janney School grounds, allotted in 1935 for use by the proposed public library, to the D.C. Commissioners. The site on the southwest corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Albemarle Street was deemed desirable by the D.C. Public Library because of its proximity to public transportation, its location within a short distance of several public schools and the fact that it occupied the heart of Tenleytown's commercial area.

Construction of the library did not begin, however, until July 1959 because of a heated debate over the use of the site. Area residents protested the location of the library because it occupied a corner of the Janney Elementary School playground, which the citizens, including the Janney School Parent-Teachers Association, felt should be reserved for recreational facilities. The city, however, insisted that the new library be located near public transportation and in a central location, and therefore denied the community's request to relocate the branch. The old police station that once served as the home of the Tenley Library was eventually demolished, and a restaurant now occupies the site.

The design for the Tenley-Friendship Neighborhood Library was prepared by architect Clark T. Harmon. While little else is known about Harmon, he practiced in Washington during the 1950s and 1960s. A member of the Potomac Valley Chapter of the American Institute of Architects since 1955, Harmon maintained an office at 2216 40th Place N.W., in 1956, and later at 4630 Montgomery Ave., Bethesda, Maryland, in 1962. Harmon's design followed the same general architectural program as the three previous branch libraries erected under the D.C. Public Works Program, each of which displayed similar design features. The building program of these libraries was determined in part by the D.C. Public Library's staff, which developed a set of guidelines. However, the similarity of the Public Works libraries implies that the Office of the Supervising Architect may also have influenced the architecture. The buildings all follow a similar architectural program that prescribes construction materials, decorative elements, and the organization of the facade.

Ground was broken for the new library building on July 10, 1959. The library was the fourth of six planned branch libraries to be built under the District's Public Works Program, begun in 1955, and later revised in 1959 to include nine new and replacement branches. The general contracting firm of BF Rodney Company of D.C. constructed the two-story, brick building.

The new Tenley-Friendship Neighborhood Library was dedicated on October 27, 1960. The branch was built to accommodate 50,000 volumes and encompassed 19,000 square feet of space. The interior walls were exposed cinder block, the windows were set in metal frames, and fluorescent lighting illuminated the reading rooms. Early community services at the library included a film program, a soundproof listening booth, a children's booth and meeting space.

The library is supported by the first "Friends" group established in the D.C. Public Library system. Established in 1972, the Friends of Tenley-Friendship Library originally formed to advocate the continuation of the second floor children's room. Today the Friends continue their support of Tenley-Friendship Library with donations of equipment, furniture and books. The group also sponsors a lecture series featuring local authors, and serves as the library's representatives to the Mayor, City Council, Congress and library administration.

The branch is known for its author lecture series, monthly book discussion groups, and its exemplary collection of garden books donated by Washington Post columnist Henry C. Mitchell. The library also houses a children's section serving infants through teenagers, as well as two meeting rooms.