Southwest Library History

Southwest Library History

The Southwest Neighborhood Library, originally opened in the wing of a junior high school, has served its community for more than 70 years. Opened at Thomas Jefferson Memorial Junior High School in 1941 and moved to its own freestanding building, at 902 Wesley Place SW, in Oct. 22, 1961, the Southwest library was part of a library boom -- the ninth of 11 branch libraries built between 1956 and 1968 under the D.C. Public Works Program. 

A scholarly start

As early as 1927, DC Public Library officials included provisions for a Southwest neighborhood library in their five-year plan. The plan proposed the library be located in the old Jefferson Junior High School, built in 1872 at 6th and D streets. Placing library branches in public junior high schools recommended itself because of the regional draw of these institutions, and because their locations were generally suburban. However, these plans were never implemented due to the findings of a 1929 study of the desirability of jointly housing public schools and public library branches. The study concluded that "the disadvantages [of this system] both to the library service and to the school service far transcend any advantages of economy."

The Public Library included plans for a full neighborhood library in Southwest in its 1932 to 1946 extension program. The branch, which would be built between 1937 and 1941, was to cost an estimated $150,000. But funding issues put the Library's ambitious building program on hold. Instead, the library reconsidered its stance on placing libraries in public schools when the chance arose to include a library wing in the new Thomas Jefferson Junior High School, set to replace the old Jefferson Junior High School. The library's Board of Trustees requested $175,000 for construction. The 1938 Congressional Appropriation Act for the District of Columbia included $111,000 for the construction of the Southwest Library as a wing of the new junior high school.

The Thomas Jefferson Junior High School and Library, as it was known, was designed by the District's Municipal Architect, Nathan Corwith Wyeth, in the Georgian Revival style. Wyeth, an accomplished architect, came to Washington in 1899 after training at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris and working in New York with the architectural firm of Carrere and Hastings for several years. As Municipal Architect, Wyeth championed the Colonial Revival and Georgian Revival styles for the city's public architecture. Wyeth was also responsible for the design of numerous city buildings, including the Georgetown (1935) and Petworth (1939) locations of the DC Public Library.

The Southwest Neighborhood Library was dedicated in its new wing of Jefferson Junior High School on Jan. 3, 1941. The branch consisted of a two-story, brick wing featuring a central main entrance on the east elevation flanked by projecting window bays. The interior contained a reading and reference room for adults on the first floor, and a children's room on the second floor. The branch was described as "one of the most modern branch libraries in this part of the country" because of its incorporation of such features as acoustically treated plaster walls to ensure quiet in the reading rooms, indirect lighting and built-in bookcases. The basement contained a small auditorium available for public meetings. By 1948, the second floor children's room had been moved down to the first floor due to budget cuts.

Diverse populations

When it opened, the first Southwest Neighborhood Library owned 17,800 volumes and 92 magazines. The library was run by a staff of 12, including the branch librarian Virginia T. McLaughlin. The library served a population of approximately 26,000 people, half of whom were black. The racially mixed population and the various socioeconomic levels of the neighborhood's residents made the library's initial task difficult. In DC Public Library's newsletter, staff member John H. Earle, claimed that while many people viewed the neighborhood as "some sort of cultural slough of despair in which all advisory work is necessarily prefaced by a few explanatory words such as 'This is what we call a book,' " the residents of Southwest on the contrary exhibited a great desire to read and make use of the library's facilities. Despite the citizens' eagerness and pride, Earle said that the library faced problems relating to the declining economic conditions of the neighborhood:

“The encroachment of government buildings on the north, markets on the west, warehouses, fuel yards and small manufacturers on the east make the remaining residential area relatively small. Old figures (1925-1930) seem to indicate a rather rapid diminution of the population. One of the city's oldest sections, southwest has clearly been more prosperous in former years than it is now. Most of the larger and more elegant dwellings in the community are degenerating into multiple lodgings. White housing is largely lower-middle class to poor and Negro housing is particularly bad especially in the many inhabited alleys.”

While these conditions certainly detracted from the community's stability, a "genuine civic pride, particularly evident in the neighborhood's vigorous Citizens' Association, and the Civic Association" existed. These organizations successfully lobbied for civic improvements, including the construction of the new junior high school and the incorporated library branch and a new public health center. The library took steps to ensure that it served the entire population, visiting all 13 local schools, advertising its services through local agencies, and attending community meetings to expand the public's awareness of the library's services.

During its first six weeks of service, the first Southwest Neighborhood Library registered 2,843 patrons and circulated 6,669 volumes. The most popular nonfiction subjects checked out during that period were cooking, technical materials, photography, art, music, contemporary affairs and religion. The most popular biography and fiction titles were Mein Kampf, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Gone with the Wind and The Grapes of Wrath.

During its 24 years of service, the Southwest Neighborhood Library played a pivotal role in organizing and inspiring the community. Its numerous public programs focused on educating and bringing together the various groups in the neighborhood. The Southwest library hosted several art exhibits during its first years of service, including a display of paintings lent by the Phillips Gallery in D.C. and sketches of animals at the National Zoo drawn by a local artist. The branch also served its community during World War II as the official classification center for books donated to servicemen under the Victory Book Campaign. Regular programs offered by the library over the years have included a Composer Forum, a children's story hour and summer reading programs for children.

The library also played a vital role in promoting better race relations in Southwest by sponsoring an annual Southwest Community Sidewalk Fair beginning in 1946. These fairs displayed the work of neighborhood elementary and junior high school children with the express purpose of improving race relations and proving that "when given a chance for equal opportunity, no race is superior to another."

By 1951, plans for redeveloping the Southwest neighborhood had begun under the direction of the National Capital Planning Commission and the District's Redevelopment Land Agency. The redevelopment plans were funded by the Federal Government under the Housing Act of 1949. The goal of Urban Renewal was to revitalize inner city neighborhoods and counteract the negative impact of postwar growth on the city. Southwest was identified as one of three potential redevelopment areas in the city based on the 1950 Comprehensive Plan that described Southwest as "possessing high concentrations of 'obsolete dwellings,' overcrowding, and other potential threats to public health." By 1954, redevelopment planning had begun for the area in which the Southwest Neighborhood Library stood. In 1955, the Public Library's Board of Trustees sent a letter to the Redevelopment Land Agency expressing their interest in including a new library building for the Southwest Branch in the redevelopment plans.

Although provisions for a new building were included in the D.C. Public Works Program as early as 1956, the Library's Board of Trustees pursued the possibility of incorporating the library in redevelopment plans for the area. The hope was to secure federal funding and a site through the Redevelopment Land Agency. The redevelopment process took years due to legal disputes, political red tape, and the variety and complexity of the architectural planning process.

The Library's Board of Trustees fixed on an ideal location for the new library near the newly-designed Town Center to be located on squares 542 and 543 bounded by I Street on the north, 4th Street on the west, L Street on the south and Third Street on the east. By 1960, the Redevelopment Land Agency, whose job it was to acquire the necessary land for the project, had obtained all the properties within these two squares and demolished the buildings occupying them. Negotiations with the Redevelopment Land Agency and the National Capital Planning Commission over a suitable site continued until 1962 when a parcel at the corner of Third and K streets S.W. was set aside for library use. Congress approved $49,500 for purchase of the site and an additional $36,000 for plans and specifications in 1962. Construction was scheduled to begin in 1964, with the total cost of construction reaching $634,500. The redevelopment of squares 542 and 543 resulted in the closing of most of K Street S.W., and the addition of a new street, Wesley Place S.W. off I Street. The site for the Neighborhood Library occupied the square lot created by the intersection of K Street and Wesley Place.

The Southwest Library building was designed by the architectural firm of Clas & Riggs. The firm's principal, Angelo R. Clas (1887-1970), served as Director of Housing and as Assistant Administrator of Public Works in Washington between 1934 and 1938. After this, he established a private practice, designing numerous commercial and office buildings throughout the city and its suburbs. In 1959, Clas joined George H. Riggs Jr. and continued to design and remodel commercial and office buildings. The firm was responsible for the design of the Oldsmobile Service Building Offices and Show Rooms in Silver Spring, Md., and the reconstruction and remodeling of the Hotel Washington in the District of Columbia.

The building was designed by architect Angelo R. Clas and constructed by the contracting firm of Coakley & William. Congress appropriated construction funds approximating $635,000 for the Southwest Neighborhood Library, which occupied a two-story concrete and brick building encompassing nearly 20,000 square feet of space.

Clas & Riggs completed the designs for the Southwest Neighborhood Library by January 1963. The drawings were presented to the Commission of Fine Arts, a regulatory agency charged with reviewing the design of all public architecture in the District of Columbia. They rejected the designs, stating that "the design was much too severe and forbidding for a small urban library." They recommended several changes in the architectural expression that would "achieve a lighter and more pleasing character."

Among the revisions made was the replacement of horizontal strip windows with vertical strip windows, a change greatly appreciated by the Commission. During the design and review process, the D.C. Department of Buildings and Grounds instituted a new policy that all new public buildings would be air-conditioned. Southwest Neighborhood Library became the first building to be approved under the new policy, and the designs were altered to accommodate air-conditioning ducts. The contract for construction of the new Southwest branch was awarded on January 28, 1964, to the construction firm of Coakley and William.

The new library facility for Southwest consisted of a two-story, reinforced concrete structure clad in red brick. The exterior featured a covered entrance porch, large front display window and vertical strips of windows. The interior contained two floors of public services encompassing 20,000 square feet of space. The first floor contained the adult reading-reference room, a book stack area and a soundproof listening booth. The second floor provided space for a children's room, an additional stack area and staff work space. The basement level held a single community meeting room and the building's heating plant. Provision for the addition of a full third story was incorporated into the design.

Dr. Albert W. Atwood, President of the Board of Library Trustees, presided at the dedication of the new Southwest Neighborhood Library on October 22, 1965. General Charles M. Duke, District Engineering Commissioner, delivered the main address, calling on area residents to become involved with their new branch.

In 1976, the Friends of the Southwest Neighborhood Library was formed to provide volunteer and financial support to the branch. Over the years, the Friends have helped plan adults’ and children's programs, such as film programs and reading clubs. They have served as advocates of the branch, helping reinstate services such as copying machines and an onsite security guard. Currently the Friends have paid for a year’s access to the Internet for library patrons and provided the paper for printing information from it. The Friends support children’s programs in many ways, including the purchase of books and prizes for summer reading clubs.

While the Southwest branch has consistently drawn patrons and supported its community, budget cutbacks affecting all library branches in the early-to-mid-1970s caused the consolidation of the children's room with the adult room on the first floor.

Its children’s programs include visits from school and pre-school classes and the children’s librarian visits local schools and selects books for classroom use. The library sponsors a tutoring program in which volunteer neighborhood tutors help children with their homework at the library after school. A local church provides funds to pay about 10 teenage volunteers to assist library staff in the summer.

The Southwest Library has recently received a federal grant for a computer-based adult literacy program. The program will assist adults who are working on their GED, job skills or resumes. Trained volunteer neighborhood tutors will supplement computer programs.