Woodridge Library History

The current Woodridge Branch of the D.C. Public Library opened January 16, 1958. Its predecessor, the Woodridge Subbranch, served the northeast community from December 1929 until the opening of the new modern facility at 1801 Rhode Island Ave. N.E. The first subneighborhood library in the neighborhood was located at 2206 Rhode Island Ave. N.E. in a commercial building that was specifically erected for use as a library. During the 29 years the Woodridge Subbranch was in existence, the Woodridge community continually urged its replacement with a full-fledged, purpose-built neighborhood library. When this wish finally came true in 1958, the neighborhood had a 20,000-square-foot, modern, one-story, brick and steel facility designed by Leon Chatelain in collaboration with the office of the D.C. Supervising Architect. The general contractor on the project was Walsh & Blanche. The new neighborhood library was the second of six public library branches built under the D.C. Public Works Program, and was constructed with public funds at a cost of $317,400.

The mainly residential neighborhood of Woodridge was located in the Northeast quadrant of the District, and centered on Rhode Island Avenue. By the 1920s, the area had become densely populated with generally middle-class residents living in free-standing, single-family dwellings.

The idea for a public library branch in Woodridge was first presented to the Rhode Island Avenue Citizens’ Association in August 1921 by one of its members, R.H. Elsworth. After meeting with Theodore F. Noyes, president of the D.C. Public Library Board of Trustees, the Association appointed a special committee to study the feasibility of the library proposal. The committee canvassed the neighborhood, surveying the residents on their desire to have a public library in the vicinity. The committee also studied the population of the area and compiled a list of potential sites for the new library. In December 1921, the committee reported that:

“Whereas the failure to provide ready facilities for procuring such books results in promiscuous, unguided reading, which may be undesirable or positively harmful; and whereas suitable sites for a public library properly located are fast disappearing; now, therefore, be it resolved, that the Rhode Island Citizens' Association authorize the president to appoint a special committee, ...for the purpose of taking such action as may be necessary to procure a suitable library site and building in this community at the earliest possible date.”

The committee further resolved that until a permanent library building could be erected, establishing a library in temporary, rented quarters would be pursued. Dr. George F. Bowerman, Librarian of the District of Columbia, agreed that a Neighborhood Library should be placed in the Woodridge neighborhood, and recommended in his 1926 annual report that just such a branch be located in the vicinity of Rhode Island Avenue and 18th Street N.E. Despite concerted effort on the part of the Citizens’ Association and its library committee, funds to establish a Neighborhood Library in rented quarters were not included in the District budget until 1930. The appropriation for the Woodridge Subneighborhood Library became available on July 1, 1929, at the beginning of Fiscal Year 1930.

As soon as the funds were assured, the D.C. Public Library and the Rhode Island Avenue Citizens' Association began searching for a suitable site and building to house the new library. Unable to locate a usable, unoccupied building, the Citizens' Association persuaded one of its members, M.O. Bull, to erect a building on his property at 2206 Rhode Island Ave. N.E. A permit was issued on August 28, 1929, for the erection of a one-story, brick and concrete, "store/branch public library" to be designed and constructed by Conrad M. Chaney. The cost of the new building was approximated at $14,000. Bull rented the building to the public library for use as a subbranch, classified as such because it was only open on a part-time basis.

The interior of the new subbranch on Rhode Island Avenue was furnished mainly with desks and chairs manufactured at the Central Library by its building force. The building was described as a "double store" that was divided into two sections, one for adults and one for children, by a low bookcase running down the middle. Space for the librarian's office and a work room were provided at the back of the building.

Opening exercises for the Woodridge Subneighborhood Library were held December 6, 1929, at Sherwood Presbyterian Hall. Addresses included a welcome from Thomas J. Llewellyn, President of the Rhode Island Avenue Citizens' Association, an introduction and remarks by Dr. George F. Bowerman, Librarian, and a speech by Congressman Merlin Hull of Wisconsin. The subbranch opened with a book stock of approximately 2,000 volumes and 15 periodicals. It was run by two full-time staff members, under the direction of Lorena G. Mondereau.

The Woodridge Subbranch was an immediate success despite the small number of books in its collection, its part-time hours of operation, and a staff of only three. By February 1931, the subbranch had the largest circulation of any of the five subbranches in the D.C. Public Library System. In January 1931, the subbranch circulated 6,226 books. By that time, the meager book collection had grown to 5,484 volumes. In the first 19 months of its operation, Woodridge issued 2,981 library cards to borrowers.

The subbranch also conducted several community outreach programs, including school visits aimed at encouraging teachers and pupils to use the library. Classes from nearby elementary schools also visited the Woodridge subbranch. Local educators were very appreciative of the services of the new library. One local principal voiced his appreciation, explaining, "We find reading makes a remarkable difference in a child's vocabulary, as is shown by actual tests made in our schools before and after the Woodridge Subbranch was established." The library also served as a center of community activity, hosting meetings of the Woodridge Book Club, Girl Scout Leaders training classes, and the Woodridge Music Club.

The Woodridge Subbranch was threatened with closure only three years after opening due to severe shortfalls in the D.C. budget precipitated by the Great Depression. A Senate hearing on the 1934 D.C. Appropriations bill was attended by George L. Gee of the Rhode Island Avenue Citizens' Association who pleaded for the renewal of funds to support the continued operation of the Woodridge Subbranch. Gee presented the startling circulation and registration figures of the subbranch, along with a report that the rental fee for the library building would be reduced by 10% in order to cut operating costs. The Association was successful in reinstating the funding and the library continued to operate.

After its 1933 success, the Citizens' Association focused its efforts on securing funding for full-time operation of the library. The Citizens’ Association's newsletter, Neighborhood News, reported in 1939 that Dr. George Bowerman had attempted to secure appropriations for an enlarged staff for the Woodridge Subbranch, but had, as yet, been unsuccessful. In 1940, Harold J. Clay, President of the Rhode Island Avenue Citizens' Association, made a plea for a full-fledged Neighborhood Library, stating that "Only by full-time service can the Woodridge Sub-Neighborhood Library adequately take care of the needs of the community."

He noted that the subbranch served a population of over 30,000 people, had a circulation of over 104,000 volumes a year and a registration of over 5,600 borrowers. The branch, however, operated on a part-time basis, with 32 operating hours per week and a staff limited to five people. Clay also urged that a site for the proposed public library branch be purchased right away because of the rapid disappearance of eligible sites along Rhode Island Avenue. In January 1945, the Woodridge Subbranch was granted funds to stay open full-time, becoming a full-fledged Neighborhood Library.

After many years of petitioning the D.C. Commissioners, a recommendation was made that a library site be located in the Woodridge area, and funds be appropriated for the design and construction of the building. By 1950, a site had been selected and purchased by the District, and funds were sought for the library building. In 1952, $7,500 was allocated to the Municipal Architect's office for plans to be drawn up for the Woodridge Branch; however, a contract for the designs was not drawn up until 1954. The contract was awarded to architect Leon Chatelain, Jr. (1902-79), and his plans were finalized by 1955.

Chatelain was an award-winning D.C. architect who was noted for his expertise in designing barrier-free buildings for the disabled in the 1960s. Chatelain was educated at George Washington University (B.A. in Architecture 1927), and worked for several years as a draftsman for Philip M. Jullien (1920-23), Arthur B. Heaton (1923-26), and Waddy B. Wood (1927-30). In 1956, he formed the firm of Chatelain, Gauger & Nolan (after 1970, known as Chatelain, Samperton, and Nolan). Chatelain and his partners designed several notable buildings in Washington, including the Westmoreland Congregational Church (Massachusetts Avenue at Westmoreland Circle, 1948-55), the Washington Gas Light Company headquarters (11th and H streets N.W., 1945 and 1948) and the Kiplinger Building (1948-64). He served as the national president of the American Institute of Architects from 1956 to 1958, as well as President of the Washington Metropolitan Board of Trade.

Construction funds in the amount of $292,950 were included in the 1956 appropriation for erection of the Woodridge Branch. The library was the second of six planned branch libraries to be built under the District's Public Works Program, begun in 1955. This plan was later extended to include nine new and/or replacement branches in a revised D.C. Public Works Program approved in 1959. The construction contract for the Woodridge Branch was awarded to Grunley, Walsh and Blanche of D.C., and the building neared completion by the end of 1957. The final cost of construction was $317,400. The library building featured a steel frame faced with red brick, a large display window flanked by two glass doors and minimal exterior ornamentation. The branch contained 20,000 square feet of space capable of holding 50,000 volumes. The interior was designed with open, flexible spaces. The first floor included a lobby, children's room, adult reading and reference rooms, offices, workrooms and two enclosed listening booths. A half-basement containing a meeting room and book stack area occupied the lower level. The partial second floor was used for book storage and was designed to accommodate future expansion.

The branch was dedicated January 16, 1958, with Albert W. Atwood, President of the Public Library Board of Trustees presiding and D.C. Commissioner David B. Karrick and D.C. Librarian Harry N. Peterson in attendance. The first branch librarian of Woodridge was Raymond T. Elgin, Jr. The library, which opened with a collection of 30,000 books, marked a large expansion of library services in the Northeast quadrant of the city. The library continued to serve as a center of community activity, accommodating the meetings of numerous local organizations. During 1971, branch services were interrupted for two months while air conditioning equipment was installed.

The Woodridge Neighborhood Library is today the Woodridge Regional Library, serving as a central reference facility supporting several branch libraries. In 1977, the branch was designated one of four regional branches, meaning it maintained a larger book collection, was open longer hours, and provided administrative coordination and staff support for the local branches. The new regional system was organized in response to fiscal constraints, allowing the library to centralize administrative services and pool its collections.

The library has three meeting rooms of various sizes open to the public.