From the Ashes

Georgetown LibraryCredit: Executive Office of Mayor Adrian Fenty

From Preservation November 1, 2010

April 30, 2007, was a day of “horror,” for Ginnie Cooper, the District of Columbia’s chief librarian. She shudders as she recalls the site of the Georgetown library cupola, engulfed in flames, crashing through the roof into the children’s section. The heat was so intense that steel girders bent like licorice, and books were reduced to ashes, carried away by the wind like confetti.

“The good news,” she consoled herself, “was that no one was hurt” by the fire, which broke out while workers were removing paint from a cornice. (The official cause is still in litigation.) Still, the normally spunky Cooper was beyond distressed. This maintenance project was supposed to be a relatively straightforward lead-paint abatement and window restoration. Now the entire collection was destroyed or damaged, including priceless historic documents, and the building was a smoke-and-water shambles.

Little did she know that there was more good news to come.

Georgetown Library during its renovationCredit: Martinez+Johnson Architecture

Before the fire was extinguished, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty was on the phone, promising to rebuild no matter the cost—even though the city was still reeling from a fire earlier that day that devastated another treasured city building, the historic Eastern Market.

What a difference two and a half years, and about $18 million, make. On Oct. 18, the Georgetown library reopened, its Georgian facade—cupola and all—renovated in keeping with historic-district tenets. Gutting the building provided an opportunity not only to incorporate state-of-the-art engineering and sensitively integrated ADA access, but also bring back original architectural details that had been lost over the years.

Tom Johnson, founding principal of Martinez + Johnson, which partnered with Seattle-based Hoshide Williams, did some sleuthing in the city records to figure out what the city’s municipal architect Nathan C. Wyeth (who also designed the first Oval Office for President William Howard Taft), had had in mind 75 years ago.

“This project was a once-in-a-lifetime project,” Johnson says. “The library staff was so knowledgeable and great to work with.”

One of the most striking things he discovered was that in the rear of the building an outdoor reading terrace once stood atop Book Hill Park, with spectacular views of Georgetown and beyond to Virginia. At some point it had been replaced with a parking lot. Workers rebuilt the terrace, which is slate and enclosed by a low red-brick wall.

The ground beneath the terrace was excavated to make room for a basement addition, part of the formerly cave-like basement’s transformation into a large and cheery children’s section. French doors open onto a grass-tiered amphitheater. By relocating mechanical systems to a separate room—hidden beneath a plinth on the front—and by using LED-fluorescent lighting, they were able to create a floating ceiling, painted blue, that makes the space feel open and airy.

Energy-efficient lighting strategies helped the project earn LEED Silver status. For starters, the designers removed the old mezzanine level, bringing in more natural light and opening up the first floor to overlook Book Hill. On the second floor, glass-walled study rooms (ideal for teen study groups) along the perimeter allow daylight to penetrate into the interior. The designers rewired and restored exterior wrought-iron lamps and used fluorescent reproduction pendants throughout the building.

The biggest change is a new third floor, with nearly twice as much real estate for the Peabody collection. Where once there were only the bare attic rafters, there is now a spacious reading room with a coffered ceiling.

“This is the magic space,” Cooper says. “When I saw it in its cleaned-out state, it was beautiful. You could see the bones of the building that had been covered up over the years.”

Daylight now streams in from six new dormers with window seats. The collection’s original glass storage cabinets were salvaged and then recessed into the knee wall in between the dormers. There are two climate-controlled storage rooms on either end—a vast improvement over the old air-conditioning system, a rattling window unit an archivist brought from home.

All the historic books, documents, artwork, ephemera,  and “realia” were saved thanks to the fast-thinking staff, who before the flames were even extinguished called in a freeze-dry truck from their friends at the National Archives and began freezing papers before destructive mold could set in. Months later, volunteers photocopied some 30,000 newspaper clippings onto acid-free paper, including a July 1776 edition of theMaryland Gazette, with the full text of the Declaration of Independence printed on the second page.

With the exception of the six dormers, all the wood windows are original; they had been removed just prior to the fire for restoration. Throughout the building, many original wood reading chairs and tables were salvaged and restored. Millwork that couldn’t be saved was carefully replicated with Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood. Much of the perimeter shelving, for example, is maple, painstakingly designed and stained to match the original mahogany—that is, the dark, rich, glossy finish that could still be found on the insides of cabinets, protected from years of exposure to light and air.

The original mahogany mantels in the reading rooms were reproduced or restored. Their gleaming wood, coupled with brass andirons, beckon visitors to plop down in leather chairs and curl up with a good (and brand new) book. But will the chimneys ever see any action? Cooper’s eyes twinkle behind her turquoise-frame glasses and she gives a wry smile. “Over my dead body.”