Petworth Library History

Petworth Neighborhood Library

Petworth Neighborhood Library at 4200 Kansas Ave. NW was the sixth neighborhood library to open in the District, and the third to be funded strictly through public appropriations. Designed by D.C. Muncipal Architect Nathan C. Wyeth, the two-and-a-half story Georgian Revival-style library building opened on Jan. 27, 1939, to rave reviews. This library, sited on public property donated by the D.C. School Board, was built after Petworth-area organizations waged an extended campaign to obtain a public library in their community.

A community's determination

As early as 1927, the citizens of the Petworth neighborhood began planning their campaign to secure a neighborhood library for their community. Such community organizations as the Petworth Citizens’ Association, the Home and School Association, and the MacFarland Parent-Teachers’ Association gathered to petition the D.C. Board of Commissioners for a public neighborhood library. The community argued that their neighborhood, with an estimated population of 50,000 people and 11,000 school children attending 11 neighborhood schools, was a natural choice for a new neighborhood library. It was intended that the library would serve a territory from the Soldiers’ Home on the east to Rock Creek Park on the west. The proposed location for the branch was accessible by streetcar service that ran north and south on Georgia Avenue and to the east on Upshur Street.

By 1930, a site had been secured for a neighborhood library in Petworth. Located on the northwest corner of Georgia Avenue and Upshur Street NW, where Kansas and Iowa avenues intersect, the property was made available by the Board of Education. The site occupied the southeast corner of a triangular lot of land occupied by MacFarland Middle School and Theodore Roosevelt High School. The citizens of Petworth were successful in obtaining an appropriation of $150,000 to be included in the 1932 District budget. However, these funds were never approved and alternate funding was sought. On June 19, 1933, the D.C. Public Library Board of Trustees forwarded a request to the D.C. Commissioners to include provisions for the Petworth branch of the public library among the public works projects funded through the Works Progress Administration. Again the funds were denied. Not until 1936 did Congress definitively approve $75,000 for the construction of the Petworth Branch, with another $75,000 promised the following year. The total funding was later raised to $180,000.

Petworth library's start

Petworth Neighborhood Library, 2939.Plans were prepared by the Municipal Architect of Washington, D.C., Nathan C. Wyeth. Wyeth was an accomplished architect who 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. In Washington, Wyeth served as the Supervising Architect of the Treasury until 1904, when he joined the Office of the Architect of the Capitol. After a two-year appointment as chief designer in that office, Wyeth opened a private practice designing private residences for Washington's elite. His lucrative practice ended in 1934 due to the financial stress of the Depression. Wyeth then signed on as the Municipal Architect for the District of Columbia, serving in that capacity between 1934 and 1946, when he retired. As Municipal Architect, Wyeth championed the Colonial Revival and Georgian Revival styles for the city's public architecture. 

Although Wyeth completed the designs for the Petworth branch in the fall of 1937, construction of the library was delayed when the D.C. Commissioners were forced to reject all bids from contractors because they exceeded the $180,000 authorized by Congress. The plans were then modified to reduce construction costs, although the overall appearance of the building was not altered. Construction began on Dec. 7, 1937, and the new library was completed by January 1939.

The Petworth Neighborhood Library was formally dedicated the evening of Jan. 27, 1939, with Philip Sidney Smith of the Public Library's Board of Trustees presiding. Representatives of the numerous local organizations involved in establishing the neighborhood library were present and spoke in praise of the new branch. The keys to the branch were presented to Charlotte H. Clark, the first Petworth Branch librarian.

Behind the design

The Petworth Branch consisted of a two-and-a-half story, hipped roof building with flanking, two-story, gable roof wings. The building was embellished with a limestone water table and quoining, dentil molding along the cornice, and an ornate classically inspired door surround featuring Ionic columns crowned by decorative urns. The building's design was intended to "conform in style and architecture with the adjacent school buildings" and give the impression of a "substantial, comfortable home, rather than a formal institution." A public memorandum announcing the building's opening described the intentions of the design:

“Following the style and distinguishing features of the larger brick structures built during the first half of the 18th century in the American Colonies, an attempt was made not only to reproduce but to recapture in the Petworth Neighborhood Library the spirit of the early American builders...The interior is designed to meet the most exacting demands of the modern library.”

The architect also designed several innovative features at the time, including indirect lighting in the reading rooms, a specially planned entrance designed for easy surveillance of patrons entering and exiting, and the inclusion of a built-in filing system in the staff offices. Other notable features included a functional lobby, the ornament of semicircular bay windows on the facade, and the inclusion of fireplaces in the children's and adult reading rooms to create a cozy home-like atmosphere. In addition to the building's striking architectural design, the surrounding grounds were improved with a cutting garden and landscaped lawn.

Petworth through the years

Petworth library staff, 1947The Petworth library was an instant success. The Evening Star reported that within the first two weeks of operation, the library circulated 17,950 books and that the staff was having a difficult time meeting the demand with their meager collection. After six weeks of operation, the branch librarian issued statistics showing that the branch's 33,000-volume collection only provided four books for every registered patron. At that time, more than 9,000 adults and children were registered with the Petworth branch, 4,000 of whom had transferred from other branch libraries. Another sign of the library's early success was the praise of local civic organizations such as the Petworth Parent Teacher Association. Several gifts and purchases swelled the library's collections in the early years. Among these were more than 30 private gifts, including a Catholic Encyclopedia from the St. Gabriel's Catholic Study Club and a 10-volume encyclopedia on rural life donated by Lyster H. Dewey.

The Petworth Branch served as a civilian defense station during World War II. It was reported to be the most active of the library branches and the second largest producer of Red Cross emergency sewing in D.C. Other wartime activities at Petworth included air-raid warden meetings, first-aid training and a "Victory Book Campaign."

During 1948-49, 4,494 patrons registered with the Petworth Branch, and 199,616 books were borrowed. By this time, the lending collection had reached 51,738 books, and the reference collection consisted of 1,420 volumes. The library also housed 220 current periodicals. The branch offered class visits for school children, a weekly story hour on Saturdays, and a "Linguaphone Room" that offered records in French, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Portuguese, Hebrew and English. A conference room was made available to community groups for meetings and educational programs, including a weekly group discussion of the "Great Books."

Renovation, innovation

In June 2009, the Petworth Neighborhood Library began a two-phase renovation process to update, improve and modernize the historic building. The first phase tackled exterior renovations that included window restoration, improved ADA access and a new cupola and balustrade on the roof. Phase II, which began in November of the same year, improved lighting, restored original finishes and furniture, imporoved elevators, updated bathrooms, and also included environmentally friendly changes that could grant the building LEED Silver or Gold status.

The renovated library re-opened on Monday, Feb. 28, 2011.

Today, the Petworth Neighborhood Library’s collection includes a Spanish Language collection, job and employment literature, and Adult Basic Education materials. Programs for all ages are offered regularly, and a meeting room with a capacity of 100 persons is well-used by groups in the community.