There’s a small crowd gathered on the sidewalk at the midway point of E Street SE between 13th and 14th streets.
“Look!” exclaims a child, pointing to what looks to be a tiny scale model of the building behind it, mounted in front of the full-scale edifice.
“It’s got its own doll house!”
“Yes,” smiles her bemused parent, before realizing “It’s a library!”
It is a Little Free Library, designed by artist and craftsman Bert Kubli to look exactly like the green building at 1355 E St. SE, the offices of Capitol Hill Village (CHV). The library is a precise model of the CHV headquarters. Kubli replicated it down to the scars left above the door after an awning was removed. It also has its own little library in front of it —and that tiny model has a minuscule little library in front of it as well.
Kubli deliberately incorporated the Droste effect in the piece, the recursive appearance of an image within itself, to help people really see the surroundings.
“I wanted to teach people to learn how to see,” he said. “I don’t think that’s a natural thing —most people aren’t looking at details.”
The project has certainly helped CHV be seen, Capitol Hill Village Executive Director Judy Berman said.
A Little Bit of Magic
The neighborhood nonprofit gives senior residents of Capitol Hill both the practical means and the confidence to live their lives to the fullest in their own homes. CHV moved into the premises a year ago but did not have a chance to fully occupy the space due to the pandemic.
“The library being there has made people stop by and say, ‘What is Capitol Hill Village?’” said Berman. “That kind of stuff wasn’t happening before,” she said. “It’s kind of doing a little bit of magic for the Village.”
Some of the passersby decide to volunteer, she added.
It took eight months for Kubli to put the work together, toiling almost obsessively in his studio space below his home near Garfield Park. “When he gets working on the project, he just got his head down and nothing else matters,” said Kubli’s spouse, Mark McElreath. “I had to bring food down to him and remind him to eat it.”
It was Berman who asked Kubli to build the Little Library, which is dedicated in honor of former CHV Executive Director Molly Singer.
Berman met Bert through McElreath, who was in her meditation group. “I decided to ask Bert, because I just thought it would be fantastic to have something special, and something made by a member,” she said, “and the streams all came together and resulted in something pretty amazing.”
A Career in Art
A former grants officer in the visual arts program of the National Endowment for the Arts, Kubli spent more than 20 years rubbing shoulders with artists, musicians, architects, engineers, academics and even celebrities such as Gary Cooper as panels determined which art projects would receive funding.
“The process, the panels —the depth of the discussions was unbelievable,” Kubli said. “I remember going to international conferences where all the other art administrators admired what the Americans were doing.”
He was part of the selection process that chose the artist for the Vietnam Memorial and the Salem Witch Trial Memorial. By the end of his career, he was an expert in art in public places.
Kubli applied this tremendous store of knowledge and experience to his own works of art, considering not only the way they look but the way it would be used. He is also the creator of the Blessings Box at 14th and E Streets SE. “I did that project because I believed in the work,” he said, noting that the pantry has helped feed local families in a time of crisis. “I did this one for me.”
Creating Safe Spaces
The CHV project helped him work through the pandemic, Kubli said. He learned to work with his hands during his childhood in rural Massachusetts. He used placemaking and building to create his own sense of security, he said. By the mid-1960s, he had rebuilt the Bethesda home he shared with his then-wife. “I always was trying to create a space that I could be safer,” he said, “and I’ve done that throughout [my life].”
In 1998, Kubli bought his current home on Capitol Hill. Before he and McElreath met, Kubli had set about building his nest there, creating the space where he was able to embrace a new chapter in his life.
The house is every bit as fascinating as his Little Library, said former Capitol Hill Restoration Society (CHRS) President Elizabeth Nelson.
Kubli did most of the extensive rehabilitation himself, including rebuilding the central staircase. A three-dimensional scan of the home, with videos of Bert operating the various built-ins, and his basement workshop is included on the CHRS virtual house tour: chrs.org/vht6-521-2nd-st-se/
“While I was there for the preparation and scanning, Bert showed me the architectural drawings for the book box —so I knew it was coming and that the design would be amazing,” said Nelson.
A Library of Distinction
Nelson proved correct. Kubli’s project for CHV was selected by Little Free Libraries for a 2021 Libraries of Distinction award. “That is a club I am proud to be a part of,” Berman said. The distinction recognizes book exchanges for their unique or exceptionally creative or inspiring designs.
Kubli has a definite answer when asked to define himself as a creative —is he a carpenter? Woodworker? Craftsman? Artist? “All of the above,” he said.
What is certain, said Berman, is that the CHV Little Library —and Kubli himself —deserve recognition for the work. “It’s a masterpiece,” she said.
The CHV Molly Singer Little Free Library has not yet been formally dedicated. A ceremony is expected to take place this spring. You can visit it now outside the CHV offices (1355 E St. SE).
Learn more about CHV, its programs and resources, by visiting capitolhillvillage.org