The Eyes

The Eyes

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Carnegie Library of Washington

At lunchtime today, I took an opportunity to tour Washington, D.C.'s Carnegie Library. The Historical Society of Washington, D.C. currently occupies what was the central public library for the City of Washington for nearly 70 years. It's location at Mount Vernon Square was part of Pierre L'Enfant's 1791 plan for the District of Columbia, which included more than a dozen open spaces for parks or memorials throughout the city. Mount Vernon Square sits on a plot where seven different streets converge in the northwest quadrant of Washington. The square is located where Massachusetts Avenue, New York Avenue, K Street, and 8th Street would intersect, and further bounded by 7th Street, 9th Street, and Mount Vernon Place.

In 1899, industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie was visiting the White House when he heard about the need for a library building in Washington. His contribution to Washington totaled $375,000, making it one of the largest of the Carnegie libraries built. In the end, Carnegie funded the building of 1,679 libraries around the United States.

The building was designed by Albert Randolph Ross of the New York architectural firm Ackerman and Ross, who had studied at the influential École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Ross designed it in the Beaux-Art style that became popular at the 1893 World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago and its "White City." The lead architect of the World's Fair was Daniel Burnham, designer of another Washington Beaux-Art building, Union Station, completed in 1908. 

Dedicated on January 7, 1903, the ceremony was attended by President Theodore Roosevelt and Andrew Carnegie. During that time, Washington was a heavily segregated town, except for the federal government. One of Carnegie's requirements for his donation included that the building could not be segregated. In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson and his Administration, resegregated federal workers. With oversight of the Carnegie Library falling to the hands of the federal government, the library staff were segregated, but the citizens of Washington who used it were not. That policy remained in effect until Wilson left office in 1917.  Heavily used and short on space, the central public library was moved to the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library in 1970.

The Historical Society leads 45-minute free tours of the beautiful Carnegie Library on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 1:00 p.m. Visit to register and for more information.

Photos by Cary Knox

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