The Southeast Library Celebrates its 90th Year

A Capitol Hill Grand Dame
An undated photo of the Circulation Desk. Photo: FOSEL

On December 8, 1922, hundreds of people came to the corner of 7th and D SE to celebrate a milestone in Capitol Hill history--the opening of a new branch library. Only the second branch to be opened by the DC library system, it was the first to be opened as part of a new, central, push to expand the library into the neighborhoods.

The opening of the Takoma Park branch 11 years earlier had shown that local substations of the main library were a successful idea, so George F. Bowerman, District Librarian, had conceived a plan to spread 34 branches across the city, including ten in public schools. The Southeast Branch Library was the first to be completed under the new model. It was hoped that these new branches would ease “congestion in the main branch, as well as saving car fare for the users.”

Congress was responsible for buying the land, which cost $10,000, while, like the two previous library buildings, the money to build the building came from the Carnegie Corporation, which chipped in $67,000. Between 1883 and 1929, 1689 libraries were built with donations from businessman Andrew Carnegie. In spite of Carnegie's death three years earlier, his corporation carried on his library-building vision. In Washington, DC four of these buildings still exist (Mount Vernon, Mount Pleasant, Takoma and Southeast).

The actual building of the Southeast facility, invariably, took longer than expected – when excavation had begin in February of 1922, the expectation was that the opening would occur on September 1. This slight delay did nothing to dampen the spirits of those who jammed “their way into the library rooms,” as the Washington Star wrote the next day, celebrating Capitol Hill's newest addition “in an enthusiastic manner.” They were greeted outside by a brass band, while inside, more sedate orchestral music played – and local worthies pontificated.

The Interior

The interior of the library was quite different than today, divided down the middle by a wall, with the south side used as the adult room, while the larger, northern, part being used as a children's room. There was a second set of stairs in the middle of this room that led to the basement, a feature that puzzled many at the time. In fact, the whole interior was slightly quirky, filled with “dark stairways ending in blank walls and cubby-holes too small for anything except to collect dust and dirt,” as a 1947 DCPL newsletter explained.

What was particularly remarkable is that the architect, one Edward Lippincott Tilton, designed over 100 libraries during his long and distinguished career, most of which were paid for by Carnegie. Tilton also designed many of the buildings on Ellis Island in New York Harbor, including the Main Building, where hopefully there were no “stairways leading to blank walls” to confuse the incoming immigrants.

In spite of the odd makeup of the interior, the library was an immediate hit, with there being a request for an extra 1000 books to make up for all those checked out in the first day. George Bowerman had hoped that the library would have a yearly circulation of 65,000 volumes, this number was more than doubled in the first year. Even after the NE library opened 10 years later, no decline in circulation was seen.

By 1925, they were asking for an increase in the book budget to handle all the users. With 40 schools within walking distance, the number of books checked out far exceeded expectations. Even the interior came in for praise:  “The soft brown furnishings of the reading rooms makes the library a congenial place to read” wrote the Washington Post, adding that “the library has received generous praise from the southeast citizens for the friendly spirit of helpfulness shown by the librarian and her assistants.”

Attempts to fix the interior began almost immediately, with the staircase in the middle of the Children's room being removed in 1928. Over the years, several changes were made to the basement, to make it more usable, though during the second world war, it was repurposed for use in the war effort, with the Civilian Defense authority and the Office of Price Administration sharing the space.

Continued Renovation

After the war, another attempt was made to remodel the library, this time to eliminate the need to climb 26 steps to get into it. One idea was to create the entrance at street level, then have an interior escalator to the main floor. Nothing came of this plan, and further renovations were not as far-reaching. The most important one came when the garage, which occupied the NW corner of the basement, was removed and an elevator was installed instead.

The library remained popular, even as the neighborhood changed. It celebrated its 50th anniversary with a neighborhood history exhibit, a dance performance, a children's soul food cooking contest, as well as a theater performance.

Another important renovation came in 2007, when the American Library Association selected the SE library for an overhaul. In just a few short months, many of the previous 'improvements,' including a dropped ceiling, were removed and a large central table was added that made space for the most important addition to the library since its opening: Computers.

Today, the library remains one of the District's smallest, but most active libraries, and is currently doing double duty while its cousin up the street, the Northeast Library, undergoes its much-needed renovations.

In December, the library will be celebrating its 90th birthday with a whole slate of events. For more information, see the ad in this issue, as well as

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