Tearing Down a D.C. Library, Only to Build It Back Up

Janney Elementary and St. Ann's Academy students watch demolition of Tenley-Friendship Library.
Janney Elementary and St. Ann's Academy students watch demolition of Tenley-Friendship Library. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
By Elissa Silverman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 4, 2007

It was not your typical library story hour.

A little after 1 p.m. Monday, students from Janney Elementary School and neighboring St. Ann's Academy gathered on a school field with D.C. chief librarian Ginnie Cooper to watch a yellow John Deere excavator smash and grab the gutted red brick building that once was Tenley-Friendship Library.

"Tear it down! Tear it down!" chanted the youngsters, who were outfitted with plastic yellow hard hats for the occasion. The excitement was shared by adults, including Cooper, who led the students in a cheer before the heavy machinery tore out a second-floor wall.

The demolition of the library branch has been long awaited as a critical first step in remaking it, though it is unclear what its replacement will look like.

The two-story building at Wisconsin Avenue and Albemarle Street NW has been closed since December 2004, one of four branch libraries shuttered at that time under a system-wide modernization plan. All remain closed, though an interim Tenley branch opened in a Wisconsin Avenue storefront.

Progress on rebuilding the libraries slowed to a crawl, becoming entangled in a larger debate over whether to sell or lease the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library downtown and build a new flagship for the 27-branch system.

The Tenley branch is also enmeshed in another controversy involving how to develop land around transit centers.

The library sits on valuable Upper Northwest real estate, only feet away from the Tenleytown Metro station. When former mayor Anthony A. Williams's administration first announced plans to rebuild the branch, planners envisioned the library as part of a mixed-use development with residential housing and possibly retail.

That drew the ire of some neighbors, who believed that the library would be shortchanged if placed alongside commercial development. The free-standing branch abuts two schools, Janney and St. Ann's.

But the area has been targeted by those who say that development should be clustered around Metro stations. One such project, called Cityline, sits on top of a Tenleytown Metro entrance and includes a Best Buy and condominium developments above the store.

"The mixed-use concept is a mixed set of problems," said John Francis Ritchotte, a parishioner at St. Ann's Catholic Church and a Tenleytown neighbor who watched the demolition.

D.C. library officials planned a meeting with neighbors yesterday to discuss various plans. Roadside Development, which built Cityline, has proposed a similar plan including the library, stores and housing.

A request for proposals will soon be issued by D.C. government, Cooper said.

But Monday was a time for celebration.

Janney sixth-grader and student council president Scot Beumel sounded the horn to commence the destruction.

"I think it's really cool," said Scot, who used to attend story time at the library.

Cooper said she hopes to break ground on a new library within a year, with a projected opening for the $16 million project in 2010.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company