The children's reading space at Tenley is also one of the least appealing among the newly built libraries, a windowless room distinguished only by some jazzy, semi-spherical lighted ceiling coffers. Children at Benning, for instance, can snuggle into their own semi-circular, naturally lit fantasy space; at Tenley-Friendship, they just get a box.
If the designs from the Freelon Group aren't as polished as the libraries designed by Davis Brody Bond Aedas (its two-floor, glass wedge in Shaw is the standout of all the new libraries), they are much better than the buildings they replaced. And they are distinctly more interesting than most of the architecture nearby.
All of the new buildings, each in its own way, rise above their context. Anacostia is a trim box of glass with a green cap and luminous light tower, in a landscape of forbidding and dilapidated structures. Benning exudes a sense of urbane seriousness in a suburban-style commercial landscape. Shaw commands its triangular lot with confidence and airy openness and offers a particularly good view of the city on three sides. And Tenley-Friendship is a rare, civic structure, built with a freedom of form that distinguishes it from a long strip of functional shops, supermarkets and cafes.
There are two more stand-alone new libraries to open, the Francis Gregory branch in Southeast and the Washington Highlands branch in Southwest, both under construction, both designed by Adjaye. And there are two major renovation projects, in Mount Pleasant and Petworth, scheduled for completion this year. But with Tenley, and with a new mayor and sobering new financial realities, there is a sense that an exciting chapter of civic regeneration may be coming to an end. Cooper would like to do more.
"I'm very concerned about a capital maintenance budget," she says. And she has a wish list for improvements, with Woodridge in Ward 5 and the Northeast branch on Seventh Street at the top. But it's all up in the air.
But, a few details aside, it has been a remarkably successful campaign. Libraries are rare common ground on the fractious map of democracy, a place where traditional ideas of bootstrap self-improvement meet liberal ideas of open access and equal opportunity. Few encounters with local government - a labyrinth of red tape, taxes, frustration and long lines under fluorescent lights - feel so good as an afternoon in a well-run library. Without lecturing or hectoring or cheap rhetoric, they build consensus and commitment to self-governance.
There is an enormous capital investment in the District's library system. The overall improvement campaign, which includes smaller renovations across the city and has cost $120.5 million since 2004, is only part of that investment. There is also a stored human and cultural capital in its books and other materials, and in the rare sense of goodwill built over decades in the community.
These buildings might have looked a lot more like Starbucks or Whole Foods, more slick debit-card modernism making life blandly comfortable. They might have suggested an old-fashioned pomposity and grandeur. They might simply have been dull and meaningless. But by design, or accident, or some mix of both, the architects who have contributed to this project have managed to make libraries that are in their own way every bit as inviting, serious and inspiring as the libraries of yore that helped forge a new middle class out of a Babel of huddled masses more than a century ago.