Housing Complex

The Builder: Ginnie Cooper’s blitz of glitzy libraries was pricey—but worth it.

Shaw library, design icon? (Darrow Montgomery)

D.C. Chief Librarian Ginnie Cooper’s office, on the fourth floor of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library, is in some ways a reminder of failure: It’s too big, and a set of fraying modernist chairs, original to the 1973 Ludwig Mies van der Rohe building, have grown too delicate to sit on. Cooper, a gray-haired grandmother with red glasses and clogs, is dwarfed by her own vast conference table.

Although Cooper was stifled in her ambition to replace a library deemed “functionally obsolete”—as she was in her last gig at the Brooklyn Public Library, where a proposed five-story showpiece never raised the $85 million it would have cost—she’s already built four new branch libraries, on top of several historic renovations and mixed-use facilities, with three more to be completed in this year. Together, they represent a significant chunk of the exciting modernist architecture being done in the District, which has long had a reputation for—to put it delicately—restraint.

Why is that notable? New City Administrator Allen Lew, after all, rebuilt a slew of falling-apart schools under then–Mayor Adrian Fenty, vastly improving the architecture at many and gracefully restoring historic buildings.

The difference is users. Schoolchildren are a captive audience, who have to go to school whether they like the building or not. Libraries, on the other hand, are optional. In an era when more and more of their traditional functions can be accomplished with a computer and a wireless connection, libraries have to work to draw people in.

“My hunch is,” Cooper says, “that you would be more willing to go in and see what’s different when it’s a glorious building like Shaw.”

That’s what the library board of trustees recognized in 2006, when they scrapped bland, cookie-cutter designs for a batch of new libraries—“There would have been a lot of disappointment if those plans had gone forward,” notes the board’s president, John Hill—and decided to go for something more ambitious. With a couple hundred million dollars to play with, Cooper toured the world for inspiration, and settled on a roster of fashionable and unabashedly modern designers who had done little, if any, work in the District before. (In the process, Cooper thinks, she found the recession’s silver lining: Some architects may have been more eager to take on the library projects because work elsewhere was hard to come by).

She didn't skimp on costs: The Anacostia library cost $445 per square foot, according to Library Journal. That’s considerably more than the national average for libraries built in the last five years, which is a little more than $300 per square foot. (The Tenley-Friendship branch, meanwhile, was even more expensive; it cost $2.9 million just to design, D.C. officials say. See cost breakdowns here.)

But the result is a striking set of buildings that sit like aliens in their neighborhoods, thoroughly unlike their surroundings—and intentionally so. “She wanted modern, she wanted bright, she wanted not the status quo, something a little edgy, in that she was pushing for something new and noteworthy,” says Christiane DeJong, part of the Davis Brody Bond Aedas team responsible for the Benning branch and award-winning Shaw library. “She wanted it to be known that these buildings belonged to the public.”

And now, the Ginnie Cooper generation is coming to a close. She probably won’t get a chance from Mayor Vince Gray’s cash-strapped administration to replace or even renovate the rest of the system. Still, in only five years, Cooper forcibly injected not just the libraries, but the entire city, with the biggest shot of popular modernism it’s ever seen, and likely ever will.


One big reason Cooper’s libraries are opening to such excitement is because the buildings they replaced were so abysmal.

D.C.’s library buildings have come in three basic forms: The classical, Andrew Carnegie-funded collection built in the 1920s and 1930s, which includes Georgetown, Mount Pleasant, Takoma Park, and Southeast Petworth. A set of sensibly squat brick buildings designed in the 1950s through the D.C. Public Works Program—from Woodridge to Cleveland Park to Washington Highlands—are barely distinguishable from each other. Then there was the bunker generation, built during the city’s decline and born out of a sense that the District didn’t deserve anything better (Shepherd Park and Lamond-Riggs are some of the last remaining examples).

Some designs were so bad that federal planning authorities tried to save D.C. from itself. In the early 1960s, the Commission on Fine Arts rejected designs for the new Benning Library as inadequate, but city officials (then appointed by federal authorities) built it anyway, saying policy required “the strictest economy and simplicity in construction.” The Watha T. Daniel Library plan, drawn up after the 1968 riots that devastated Shaw, was so prison-like that the National Capital Planning Commission directed the city to open it up with larger windows, bigger setbacks, and arcades. Again, the city rejected the advice and plowed forward, even when the feds attempted to get an injunction to stop it.

(And how did the MLK Library end up so unloved? Perhaps because city and federal authorities were so thrilled to get someone with Mies’ reputation, even in the twilight of his career, that design quality was simply assumed—the Commission on Fine Arts rubber-stamped the plans without requiring the usual presentation.)

Skip ahead to 2010. The new Cooper buildings reflect not only evolving design standards, but a transformed idea of how libraries ought to function.

“[The old libraries] were protecting something of great value,” says Davis Brody Bond Aedas’ Peter Cook. “A library often had to retrieve those books for you… Today’s libraries are very different institutions. You’d be hard pressed anymore to find librarians who go, ‘Sshhh.’”

To understand what he means, spend a few minutes working at one of the tables against the windows of the Anacostia library. Instead of entering a bomb shelter, you feel like you haven’t even left the neighborhood, since it’s visible all around you. Instead of fluorescent bulbs flickering from oppressively low ceilings, the room is flooded with natural light; you always know what time of day it is. Computers are full. New rules even allow eating in some buildings, and the stacks feel more like a recreation center than a repository of sacred knowledge—the Deanwood library is, in fact, built into a rec center, for easy access between swimming lessons and football practice. They’re even welcoming from blocks away: The Shaw library shines like a beacon to those approaching from Rhode Island Avenue and 7th Street NW, while the Anacostia library’s bright green awning extends like a front porch, inviting visitors in.

Not everyone loves the Ginnie Cooper style of library construction. Neighborhoods waged wars over whether Tenley-Friendship and Benning should be mixed-use. Local residents protested the globular concept for the Washington Highlands library, saying it made them feel like they were in an aquarium. Putting design aside, Robin Diener, who heads up the Ralph Nader-founded watchdog group D.C. Library Renaissance, thinks that big pot of money should have been spread out between all the libraries, not frittered away on fancy architects. People just want their libraries to be clean, safe, have sufficient computers, and most importantly, stay open, she says—and since Cooper has also been laying off staff and cutting hours, Diener would seem to have a point.

It’s true, the new libraries didn’t come cheap. Could the District have paid too much? If you don’t think cutting edge design is important, then it would be difficult to say no.

But the kind of architecture that reinvests neighborhoods with a sense of pride and erases the mistakes of the past is important, even if that means not every neighborhood gets something new. If you start looking at statistics already being collected on the new buildings—the rate of new card registrations in the old libraries vs. the new ones, or overall number of items checked out—you get much better bang for your buck.

The Shaw building, for example, has drawn so many children that librarian Eric Riley has had to schedule more storytimes and devote more rooms to kids than planned. If there’s one more thing he could have, he says, it would be a room for teens to have all to themselves.

“It’s just way, way crazy to see,” Riley says. “The fact that we’re getting so much use, that speaks more than anything else.”

Anacostia from the inside. (Lydia DePillis)

  • Lewless

    robin diener is crazy. she wants to shut down all my favorite restaurants and bars in dupont circle.

  • RT

    Lewless- it's true that Diener is the worst. I once took a Diener-sponsored poll, and I clearly must have answered in a way that she and her employees did not like. Because they contacted me and tried to convince me that renovations and new construction like Mt Pleasant and Washington Highlands were a bad idea. How unprofessional and hackneyed is that?!

    Lydia- great article, with awesome original research. It's always interesting to look at some of the 60's and 70's era contruction, wondering "how the hell did that get built, didn't anyone object?". It's comforting to hear that many people did, in fact, object.

    It's also interesting that while the federal interests are now our nemisis, they were once often a voice of reason for a truly inept and floundering local gov.

  • John

    When I was reading this I kept thinking of WINNIE Cooper. Is that weird? I think the libraries are great, but am I the only one who thinks MLK gets a bad wrap? In my opinion it's one of the most interesting buildings downtown. I'd like to see it restored and protected. And one more question: When librarys get renovated what happens to the old furniture? I'm really hoping that when the MTP library re-opens it isn't all filled with that stale plastic/aluminum furniture. And if they are going to replace it then I'd love to buy an old library table. Especially if I could find one with my initials carved in it from back when.

  • Dan

    It's all about the hours, accessibility and services. Think what the average SAT score might be for our city if DCPS offered free test prep classes at each library? These are great resources, and having an attractive building will certainly help get kids in the door. Yes, there is an argument to be made to share the wealth, but if spread too thin, too many average libraries will exist that no one is enticed to attend. Consider the difference in use among the recently built rec centers vs. the unrenovated ones. Plus, everyone, no matter what home looks like, deserves access to a gorgeous building with clean furniture and current technologies.

    Good first step, lots of work still to be done.

    P.S. Give those librarians a hug. One minute they are teaching kids how to read and helping unemployed visitors use job search resources, the next minute they are cleaning a mess in the bathroom. Most have advanced degrees, yet are paid less than most straight-out-of-college kids. Tough job that is a huge service to our community. Hope we can hire more of them back.

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.


    No, you're not the only one. I love the MLK Library. Maybe it's just my midwestern upbringing that included frequent trips to Chicago and lots of exposure to Mies, I don't know.

    I think the building could be a fantastic space if it were slightly reconfigured (on the ground floor in particular) and restored. You've got a lot of the key elements there - lots of glass, openness, natural light, etc. The building needs some solid management.

  • Anonymous, Too

    "It's all about the hours, accessibility and services."

    Absolutely correct, Dan. And contrary to the tone of this story, when some of the rundown libraries still functioning around DC were brand new and fresh (1950s and 60s), there were just as many kudos and just as much excitement in the neighborhoods as now.

    And if these new buildings are subjected to the same years of neglect--which is a certainty given DC gov's ignorance on sustainability issues, poor planning and cheap construction--as the prior buildings, the same scorn will be heaped on them. (FYI: If it hadn't been for Robin Diener and DC Library Renaissance, there would have been no green roof on the Shaw Library.)

    As Alex B points out, MLK's biggest current lack is buiding management. Despite thirty years of abuse and neglect, the building is a testament to Mies's use of high-quality materials and construction in his buildings. There are still many original Mies-designed Barcelona chairs at MLK in good condition. There are three great basement auditorium spaces that are ripe for a facelift and there is parking (!!!) available but that has been closed for three years because of budget cuts.

  • Capitol Riverfront Resident

    While I am a frequent patron of the Southeast & Southwest Neighborhood branches which both of them have their own unique character. I was amazed at the liveliness of the Anacostia branch. After spending more time than I would admit in libraries during graduate school, its refreshing to see libraries that reflect the life that happens in them and their evolution more into community centers.

  • http://dcjack.org Jack

    Behind the drive for bigger, flashier libraries lies an assumption that the District has enough of them, serving all DC neighborhoods adequately. Not so; Ward One, for example, has just one library, for 71,000 residents, many of whom live well beyond walking distance from Mount Pleasant. The money allocated for the expansion of this library would have been better spent in building another library, in an underserved part of the ward.

  • DCPL Librarian

    Point of clarification, the Petworth library is not a Carnegie Library, nor is the Georgetown one. Both were later constructions. The whole history of the Petworth building's design is here: http://www.dclibrary.org/node/734

  • DCPL Librarian

    @John - Furniture that's no longer being used in the libaries is sent to some kind of central property warehouse the city has. It's city property, so its disposal has to be done according to city regulations.

    @Dan - The libary offers online SAT practice tests and other test prep tools through two resources available at http://dclibrary.org/node/193 which can be accessed from any computer by anyone with a DC library card.

  • rhode island red

    People in Mount Pleasant got it nice compared to some other parts of the city. You're just a short bus ride away from the libraries in Cleveland Park, Petworth, and Shaw! Other libraries are way more isolated.

  • Lydia DePillis

    DCPL Librarian,

    Thanks for pointing out the Carnegie slip - I've fixed the online version, and we'll issue a correction in next week's issue.



  • http://twitter.com/monkeyrotica monkeyrotica

    MLK is fug, worn-out, urine-soaked, hobo-infested nightmare that needs to be torn down and sown with salt so that no other van der Rohe nightmare grows there again. Barring that, they should paint it chrome and turn it into an Apple Store.

  • ward 8

    Our new Parklands library is in a storefront of a strip mall. It's wonderful, as are the librarians, and always full. If it could be open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day, it would be an even better community resource and strengthener. The architecture's the icing; I agree that access and maintenance are the real priorities for users.

    I grow weary with the novelty approach to city services: new=good. New is just the beginning -- has the investment in function and maintenance been built into the budgets, too? You know, like what exactly is the point of streetcars in a world of broken Metro escalators.

  • b

    Just a quick note to say thanks to all the librarians and DC library employees who may read these comments. You do important work and don't get the pay or respect that you deserve. I love the Northeast DC library, where the kids section is busy, the computers are always in use, and the employees are always eager to answer my questions.

    Thank you!

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  • Elyse Kim

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  • marty f

    I love good planning and architecture. And, Robin Diener got it right on the Mt. Pleasant Library, where the design exacerbated safety issues at the rear. If Ginny Cooper, the architects, and the city officials listened rather than going overboard to defend, everyone could benefit. Thank you, Ms. Diener for trying to provide useful information for the sake of better libraries.

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