Mt. Pleasant Library History
The Mt. Pleasant Neighborhood Library, at 3160 16th St. NW, opened in May 1925, and is the third oldest public library building still in use in Washington. The library, primarily funded by the Carnegie Corporation and designed by accomplished library architect Edward L. Tilton, has seen the neighborhood change over the years, and has had a number of changes and adaptations itself, most recently culminating in a full-scale renovation, restoration and expansion.
The library was built to serve the rapidly growing communities of Mt. Pleasant and Columbia Heights. Mary Foote Henderson, instrumental in the development of 16th Street in the early 20th century, made the library available for purchase. The Italian Renaissance design of the building harmonizes with the monumental architecture of the churches and embassies that line 16th Street. The Mt. Pleasant Neighborhood Library stands in the Mt. Pleasant National Register Historic District, designated in 1987.
DC's third Carnegie library
The Mt. Pleasant Library was the third and last DC Public Library building built with Carnegie funding. Andrew Carnegie had funded the construction of the Central Library and, at its dedication in 1903, offered to finance other library buildings as they were needed. Congress was slow to authorize the acceptance of his offer. In 1910, it authorized acceptance of funds for the first Carnegie library, which opened in Takoma Park in 1911. By the time the Board of Library Trustees next sought funds, Carnegie had died without providing in his will for the construction of additional libraries. The Carnegie Corporation honored the promise by granting the trustees’ requests for the funding of two more branches, Southeast in 1921 and Mt. Pleasant in 1923.
The Board of Library Trustees approached Congress in 1922 for a $25,000 appropriation to purchase a site for a neighborhood library in Mt. Pleasant. The District’s head librarian, George F. Bowerman, recommended Edward L. Tilton as architect. Tilton, who previously designed the Southeast library, designed many other Carnegie-funded libraries. His firm with partner William A. Boring also designed the U.S. Immigration Station on Ellis Island, which won the Gold Medal Prize at the Paris Exposition in 1900. Tilton published articles on library design and favored ground-floor stack space with reading rooms above. He was known for paying careful attention to the needs of modern libraries while designing buildings with classic architectural detail. He was awarded an American Institute of Architect's (AIA) Gold Medal in 1925 for his library designs.
The Carnegie Corporation allotted $100,000, but the estimated construction cost of Tilton’s plans, reviewed by the Board in April 1923, exceeded $160,000. The D.C. Commissioners and the Library trustees asked the Corporation for additional funds “in order to erect a larger neighborhood library, with the thought that the size and character of the population to be served will develop a use of that branch only slightly less than the use of the central library.” They were awarded an additional $100,000.
Tilton’s designs called for a two-story building with basement built of Indiana limestone and a ceramic tile roof. Stairs led up to an arcaded entrance on the main floor and two wings angled back from the entrance to give the facade a gentle curve. A contemporary account described it as “a building modeled after the Massimi palace in Rome. A distinguishing feature will be an outdoor reading room, which in winter will be closed in with great windows.” This room, later known as the sun room, was enclosed year round.
An article in the Library Journal of 1926 described the design as "resembl[ing] an exclusive club rather than a library. Long windows draped with heavy curtains, arm chairs, floor lamps, fireplaces and a large sun parlor are among the architectural features which break away from conventional library practice." The library’s innovative and elaborate features were the subject of professional interest when it opened. In 1934, the Public Works of Art Project of the Civil Works Administration commissioned Aurelius Battaglia to paint murals that featured circus animals playing in a band. Battaglia later worked for Disney studios where his work included the film Dumbo.
Thousands attended the Mt. Pleasant Library opening on May 15, 1925, but the services of the library were limited due to lack of funding. The library opened on half-days on Wednesdays, and the children’s room did not open until a year later because Congress had cut the requested funding for a staff of 21 to 12.
In addition to the mural improvements in 1934, the Mt. Pleasant Library has undergone a few renovations since then. In 1984, the library was cleaned, repainted and made handicapped-accessible. Carpeting was installed in the reading rooms. The report for 1985-86 noted that circulation and head count had doubled “due to the general renovation of the building, becoming an international library and much better education of the patrons.”
In 2008, the library started a major renovation, restoration and expansion. In March 2008, the library conducted community outreach to gain input into what residents of Mt. Pleasant, Columbia Heights and Adams Morgan would like to see in their new library. DC Public Library held community meetings, administered surveys, held one-on-one conversations, had meetings with community organizations and schools, and conducted focus groups. Architects the CORE Group, in partnership with HMA2 Architects, were selected to complete the design work, which would address accessibility issues, improve vertical circulation, update infrastructure and improve code compliance, among other things.
The renovated library reopened Sept. 12, 2012, with much enthusiasm from the community. Improvements include:
- Welcoming spaces and comfortable seating
- Expanded children's space with a large story time room
- Dedicated Teen Space with Mac computers
- Meeting room for 100 people
- 50,000 books, DVDs and other library materials
- 40 computers plus laptops available for customer use in the library
Over the years, Mt. Pleasant’s librarians have sought to meet the changing needs of the neighborhood patrons as the demographics of the area changed. “The branch roster shows a fair number of what in the mauve decade were termed ‘carriage families,’ ” wrote Mary Quigley, Mt. Pleasant’s first librarian, not long after it opened. “The great majority of borrowers, however, are old folks, many from neighboring institutions, ‘roomers’ and persons genteel but decidedly not prosperous.” Fiction accounted for 66 percent of the 155,000 total adult circulation, and numbers increased during the Depression, rising to 442,000 in 1937-38. However, after the opening of the Petworth Branch in 1939, circulation at Mount Pleasant leveled off to 250,000.
A librarian’s report for 1953-54 described heavy reference use of the library, particularly by students. Library users were described as quite self-sufficient. The sun room had been dedicated to books for young adults, and their use of the library was increasing. However, the report noted that despite increasing use of the children’s room, annual circulation had declined to 177,000. It cited the opening of the Cleveland Park Library as the major reason but also listed the lack of parking, an increase in bus fares, and a “changing neighborhood.” The 1957-58 annual report talked of “neighborhood blight” with low-income and often transient families replacing middle-income ones. It noted that the branch was now used to a much greater extent for studying and less for browsing and that there was greater emphasis on books relating to employment. In addition, a growing number of users needed help using the catalogue and reference tools. The report also noted that the library continued to serve a large number of older patrons.
In 1970, the annual report noted that the community was, in general, a low-income one and that the library served three main groups of readers:
- “a diminishing small group of elderly white people...generally lonely and poor;”
- “a Black majority most of whom, but by no means all, are culturally deprived;” and
- “non-English speaking persons, mostly Spanish speaking,... [including] a large group of functional illiterates, usually persons from rural backgrounds with little formal education in their own language.”
In the late 1960s, the library began increasing its Spanish collection, and in 1969, a Cuban immigrant, Alberto Irabien, was hired first as a readers’ advisor and then as librarian. The Spanish books were moved to the sunroom and many efforts were made to reach out to the Hispanic community. The 1975 report noted that the main groups served by the library were the black majority, the non-English speaking, a few elderly white people and a growing number of young white families, some Asian and African students, and a new generation of blacks with high income and more formal education. Consequently, a Black Studies collection was created. Other heavily used books were do-it-yourself titles, civil service test booklets, the Spanish language collection, and the reference works used by students. Recreational reading slowly declined.
The 1984 report described the past decade as “a struggle for survival.” Budget woes closed the children’s room, cut more than 50 percent of personnel and left collections to neglect. However, during that time, reports noted other positive, demographic changes. “The branch finally became an international library where we serve more library users from Africa and Asia than from Latin America,” stated the 1984 report. “Even the traditional population has a new face: More young people who are white have moved their families in and more well-educated black families with good incomes have settled around the branch.”