In 1899 a member of the D.C. Library board unexpectedly ran into Andrew Carnegie in a waiting room at the White House. The lucky chance encounter led to an on-the-spot $250,000 donation (written on the back of an envelope) and gave birth to Washington’s first central library.
Prior to this point, the district's meagre library was based out of a small three-story row house, and the idea of public lending libraries had only recently started to gain traction in the U.S. Traditionally, libraries were private collections guarded by universities and museums.
The beaux-arts Carnegie Library of Washington, D.C. opened in 1903 and ended up costing a grand total of $350,000, more than $8 million in 2017 dollars. The self-described “University for the People” was the first racially integrated public building in the city and embodied Carnegie’s commitment to philanthropy and self improvement.
The eye-catching facade is composed of Vermont marble, hung on structural steel provided by the Carnegie Steel Company. The interior is filled with natural light via four huge skylights that punctuate the building’s green slate roof. The main focal point inside is a grand staircase that twists and connects the main vestibule with ground level entryways.
The D.C. Public Library wasn’t a one-off donation for Andrew Carnegie; he also financed projects in Washington such as the Pan American Union Building, the Carnegie Institution, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (not to mention 1,678 other libraries across the United States).
Over the next six decades the D.C. library’s collection expanded in size from 65,000 to over 500,000. In 1972 the severely overcrowded Carnegie building was replaced by the nearby Martin Luther King Jr. building (which is an architectural gem in its own right.) The Carnegie building has been used for a variety of purposes over the years, including a stint as UDC’s graduate library and museum dedicated to D.C. history. It is currently home to the offices of the historical society, and an occasional event space.
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