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Home​News‘Beam of Light’ Connects 3 Floors in Southeast Library Designs

‘Beam of Light’ Connects 3 Floors in Southeast Library Designs

A beam of sunlight will connect the three floors in a newly modernized Southeast Library, the project team proposed at a public meeting Wednesday.

That’s right —three floors. The concept design, presented by the design/build team of Whiting-Turner Construction/Quinn Evans Architects, includes an additional floor that will be excavated below what is now the underground level. The new floor will feature an expansion outside the building’s footprint into the public space on the South Carolina Avenue side, lit by a skylight cut in the top of the berm.

The current underground level will become the main floor that can be entered directly from a new, universally-accessible entrance on South Carolina Avenue SE.

Expansion of Space

The result is an expansion in usable space — double the space for adult seating, almost triple the space for children and families, another 50 percent more computer and book space and an additional 25 percent in meeting and conference spaces.

All of it will be tied together by a light from a restored skylight at the center of the historic library, illuminating all three floor through a light well located in the center of the building where there was once a stairwell.

The universal entrance is through a new tower addition, which will link the library to the neighboring townhouse and house the interior stairs, elevator and washroom facilities. Original designs show it as largely glass with terra-cotta accents. It is intended to be contemporary, but still related to the historical building.

Behind the addition, on D Street, currently a parking lot, a screened courtyard will function as a machine room. The the ADA ramp will be removed, the D Street berm restored, and two entrances cut into the D Street side for an employee entrance and a book drop.


In addition to increased space, light is a priority in the design, said Chuck Wray, a Principal with architect Quinn Evans. While the upper floor, intended for adults, will benefit from skylight and original windows, the main floor will be augmented as well by additional windows that will capture light from the berm skylight. Underground, a children’s program and activities space is planned under the skylight berm, a space Interior Designer Shannon Wray described as ‘magical’ and reminiscent of nature.

Children are major beneficiaries of the design, a desire indicated by the community in feedback. The lower floor is dedicated to children’s books, computers and activities and including smaller study rooms. Families are provided for on the main floor as well, where a large flexible meeting room is designed so it can also be used for conferences, meetings or family activities, complete with space for stroller parking. The ground floor, as the middle level is called, also includes a conference room, computer station, holds and new books.

The community also asked that the design allow for space dedicated to quiet contemplation and work for adults. The main historic floor, still directly accessible from the historic Seventh Street entrance, is designed to meet these needs. It will become the upper floor, retaining historic features such as walnut paneling and the fireplace.

In addition to the five study rooms, the upper floor will house the adult book and media collections, a large study room, and various spaces for quiet work and reading. The layout is reconfigured to place shelves flat against the wall, opening up sightlines throughout the space.

Administrative needs are also better served by the design. Service desks place staff on each floor, with a workroom located where the children’s corner used to be and staff workrooms and offices on the ground floor. The Friends of the Southeast Library will also have a small room where they can store materials for book sales and other events.

Community Concerns

The proposals for landscaping and the South Carolina entrance were the subject of much the community comment. The foliage currently on-site was added in the 1960s; the design team proposed a return to the original, sparse “temple on a hill” landscaping. The proposal is to plant the berm with indigenous grasses, shrubs and perennials that are easy to maintain and could provide a natural habitat for native species, with only a few ornamental trees —although the historic Linden tree on the South Carolina side will be preserved.

Residents expressed regret at a lack of shady spaces. DCPL Executive Director Richard Reyes-Gavilan said that, given the small site, difficult choices about what the library could provide were necessary. He pointed to the Eastern Market Metro Plaza (EMMP) across Seventh Street, where two shady seated areas were included in planning. Both Reyes-Gavilan  and the design team said the two redesigns worked in concert with one another.

The second area of concern was with the new South Carolina Avenue entrance. While designers emphasized that this was the best solution to a sorely-needed entrance point usable by all regardless of mobility, many had concerns related to safety. Some suggested the walls of the entrance created by the cut in the berm were well-suited to hide those with ill-intent on the street.

Concern was expressed that the entry way could become a place where people might sleep or relieve themselves. Neighbors in very close proximity across the street expressed concern about the nighttime effect of the light from the glass entryway. Many of these concerns could be addressed by design features, Reyes-Gavilan said; others, such as after-hour loitering, are problems shared by many public buildings.

The design team promised to take into account the issues raised and incorporate them into new designs at the next meeting, emphasizing that particulars of the design remain in flux. The team is now meeting with regulatory bodies, such as the District Department of Transportation (DDOT), responsible for public space under the berm, and the Capitol Fine Arts (CFA) committee to discuss the types of approval they will need to move on with the project.

DCPL. Whiting-Turner Construction/Quinn Evans Architects

The project will need to seek special exceptions to zoning code due to the increase in lot occupancy, and presentations to Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) and the Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANC) are among the next steps.

The Southeast library reopened to provide limited in-person services on May 3. The libraries will be open Monday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.

Construction on the modernization is not expected to begin until 2022 with the new library opening planned for 2024. While interim services have not been finalized, Reyes-Gavilan said that DCPL had heard the communities desire for some sort of continuation through construction “loud and clear”.

The full presentation will be uploaded online at https://www.dclibrary.org/southeastlibraryrenovation. Send comments and questions to Martha Saccocio, Director of DCPL’s Office of Community Engagement at martha.saccocio@dc.gov.

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