By Southwester Staff

The Southwest Library will finally open its doors May 6; Courtesy of Matt Koehler

On May 15, the new Southwest Library is opening its doors on I St., SW. With inviting, full-length windows and a jagged roofline, the building is a striking and modern addition to the neighborhood. The architects, Carl Knutson and Nancy Gribeluk of Perkins+Will, also wanted to emphasize the site as a “pavilion in a park,” said Knutson in a video on the firm’s website. Outside, the facility features “bio-swatch vegetation,” and on the roof, a “living green roof.” 

Beyond a focus on environmental sustainability, the new library has large spaces for neighbors of all ages, according to the DC Public Library website. The north-facing facade provides ample natural light, and there are a variety of comfortable seating options – such as benches on the front porch. There are new conference and study rooms, as well as an Innovation Lab, where the city will provide “world-class resources and programming,” said Mayor Muriel Bowser at the groundbreaking ceremony in February 2020. 

According to a DC Public Library press release from April 19, the city is opening “more libraries” and adding “Saturday hours at its open locations” starting May 3. Numerous libraries around the District will be open from the hours of 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. According to the press release, the Southwest Library “will open with the same limited in-person services as the current open libraries.” Starting on May 3, visitors to the reopening libraries will be able to pick up books placed on hold, apply for a library card, use computers, and borrow Grab & Go materials. 

Libraries will be implementing some coronavirus safety measures, including mandatory face coverings for staff and the public, regulated occupancy, physical layouts that promote social distancing, and more.

Southwest has only been partially serviced by an interim library since the old building closed in June 2019. With lockdown restrictions in place since spring 2020, even that facility has been largely shuttered for the past year. The interim building, when opened, offered a small selection of print materials, computer access, and a reduced slate of community programming. However, the doors have been locked – and the book return slot has even been sealed shut — since COVID-19 came to the capital. 

Perkins+Will, a major design firm with offices around the world, is not new to the District. Knutson and Gribeluk are based in its DC office on 24th St. NW, and it has completed numerous projects in the city. The Tenley-Friendship Neighborhood Library on Wisconsin Avenue NW, which reopened its doors in 2011, won the firm several national architecture awards. Another award-winning library designed by Perkins+Will, the Albion Library in Toronto, Ontario, was completed in 2017.

As previously reported by The Southwester, not all building projects in the District have proceeded uninterrupted during the pandemic. Last spring, the newspaper reported that the Shakespeare Theatre Company and the developers on “The Bard” in Southwest paused the project in response to the economic downturn that accompanied the pandemic. Meanwhile, however, other projects, such as the Randall School redevelopment moved forward with their plans in 2020. 

Southwest has seen a flurry of major and minor development projects in the past few years. The Wharf completed its first phase in 2017, and work on Phase II is currently underway. The Greenleaf redevelopment project also promises to update the Southwest skyline. It is difficult to pin down a time in recent memory when the neighborhood was not in flux. Some of the relatively new buildings near 4th and M St. SW, are more than a decade old, and more are under construction. The list goes on. Talk to any lifelong resident over 50 and they’ll tell you: Southwest doesn’t look anything like it did when they were growing up.

Out with the “severe,” in with the new

Replacing a modest brick rectangle, the new library is the latest in a series of drastic aesthetic changes to Southwest. But the neighborhood has seen so-called modern design and building projects since the end of World War II. 

In the 1950s, architect Dan Kiley drew up the master plan for what would become Capitol Park, according to the CPII website (https://www.capitolparkii.org/). In 1952, the DC Board of Commissioners and the federal government dedicated some $500 million to create the iconic neighborhood just south of Interstate 395. The CPII website calls the project the “nation’s first urban renewal area.” Its unmistakable mid-century modern townhomes nestled in isolated rows between the larger Capitol Park Plaza and Twins apartment buildings have been a recognizable feature of Southwest’s northernmost reaches for generations – and which won the neighborhood praise from planners, officials, and the press, according to University of Maryland, Baltimore County history professor Derek Musgrove.

Southwest’s first public library, however, opened before these development projects took off in the second half of the 20th century. According to a historical study commissioned in 2014 by SWNA, Jefferson Junior High School’s “two-story east wing was dedicated to the first public library branch in Southwest.” The neighborhood “had been the only quadrant in the city without such a facility,” according to the historical study prepared by QED Associates LLC. 

The library located in the wing of Jefferson was a “stopgap remedy” for the neighborhood’s “civic gap,” but in 1965 a Southwest Branch Library was built across I St. SW from the Amidon School. The library, designed by Angelo R. Clas of the firm Clas & Riggs, was not adorned with modern lines and colors, as other modern projects were. Instead, the simple brick building was rejected by the Commission on Fine Arts, which called it “severe and forbidding for a small urban library.” But it seemed to fit in at the time; in 1956, urban critic Jane Jacobs called Southwest the District’s “stepchild area,” according to Musgrove’s Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital. It may be overdue, then, that the branch library gets an update.

The new Southwest Library becomes the latest addition to a potpourri of modern and “severe” buildings dotting the neighborhood that, combined, tell the story of the past 75 years. And it is intended to do so. “More than just another public building,” said Carl Knutson, design director on the project, the library has a role to play “in reflecting the heritage of the neighborhood.”

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