Georgetown library is set to reopen after three years

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 18, 2010

The fire that destroyed the Georgetown library three years ago burned through most of the books in its circulating collection. They could be replaced. The unique Georgetown artifacts in the library's Peabody Collection could not.

Thankfully, all those items survived, though some will require repairs. And so, with the ribbon-cutting at a new $18 million structure at 9:30 a.m. Monday at 3260 R St. NW, the Georgetown library once again becomes whole.

"I have to keep reminding myself that everything could have gone up in flames, and we could have absolutely nothing," said Jerry McCoy, the special-collections librarian who oversees the Peabody Collection. Among his rescued treasures: A July 1776 edition of the Maryland Gazette, with the full text of the Declaration of Independence printed on the second page.

The 1935 Georgian revival structure that housed the library burned on April 30, 2007. It was one of two Washington landmarks lost to fire that day, the other being the city's 1873 red-brick Eastern Market. The market reopened last year.

What caused the library fire remains "a matter for litigation," said Ginnie Cooper, chief D.C. librarian. She notes, however, that at the time, workers were using heat-generating tools to remove tar in the building's attic and in the vicinity where the fire began.

Architects have carefully re-created the look, feel and furnishings of the original structure. Some restored mahogany tables and chairs sit in the newly finished attic, where McCoy and his Peabody Collection will occupy twice their former space. Other furniture and woodwork have been redone in a different wood - maple - but with a texture and hue to match the original.

"I've already had the experience of two different people walking in the building and saying, 'Oh, you were able to save the woodwork.' And of course we couldn't. But we duplicated it," Cooper said.

The library will open with a collection of 45,000 items. Everything in the regular circulating collection was lost, either to fire itself or to attendant smoke and water damage, and all has been replaced. The full cost of the library project, $23 million, makes it the most expensive public library branch in the city.

Much of the Peabody Collection will be back for public viewing. But many paintings, books, photographs and maps await restoration. Three of 44 paintings in the collection have been "adopted" by donors and fully restored. They include the library's most famous piece, an 1820 portrait of a slave named Yarrow Mamout by the painter James Alexander Simpson.

"A little bit of everything suffered water damage," McCoy said. "And it's going to take a lot of funding to restore it."

The fire broke out at lunchtime on a Monday and prompted an unusual sort of rescue mission: Workers pitched hundreds of irreplaceable items into boxes and loaded them in a freezer truck, to be hauled to a restoration company in Texas and freeze-dried. The items suffered water damage but avoided worse harm from mold.

Residents have missed the Georgetown branch, known for drawing scores of children to fairy teas and story times.

Cooper said the library's first official customer will be Lucy Kerr - the kindergarten-age daughter of library patrons Anna Fuhrman and Joe Kerr - who has missed three years of story times.

The library will be open 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays. _blankA grand-opening party is set for Saturday.

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