Washingtonians from all across the city remember visiting the Carnegie Library when it was still the Central Public Library for the District of Columbia. Historical Society board member Jim Banks, who grew up in Anacostia, remembers being brought to the library with his brothers every Saturday to work on his homework. What many people may not realize is that their fond memories of the library are only part of the two hundred year history of Mount Vernon Square as a gathering place for the city's diverse population.
• Peter Charles L'Enfant designated Mount Vernon Place as one of 15 "reservations" on his 1791 plan for the District of Columbia. Historic maps indicate that as early as 1802 Mount Vernon Place was initially an open space in the northwest sector of the city created by the confluence of New York Avenue, Massachusetts Avenue, K Street and Eighth Street.
• The area around what is known as Mount Vernon Square was, in its early days, known as the "Northern Liberties," a label commonly given to regions beyond the limits of the city. It is probable that the streets around it were unpaved through the middle of the nineteenth century. A firehouse was erected there in the 1840s and later a building housing the Walker Sharpshooters.
• In 1846 an ordinance was passed to construct a marketplace, as the area was thickly settled and in need of one. The Northern Liberties Market was a large brick building with stalls not only inside but also surrounding it. At least on the western end, a picket fence kept animals out of the market area; people entered through turnstiles.
• In June, 1857, what became known as the Northern Liberty Market Riots arose from the attempt of the Know-Nothing Party to prevent foreign-born registered voters from participating in the election of city officers. Marines were called in when a large crowd gathered at the market polling place with a "borrowed" cannon, and six rioters were killed in the melee that followed.
• In 1872, the market building was removed by the city's Board of Public Works under Alexander "Boss" Shepherd's systematic public improvements.
• By 1874, the city had regraded "Mount Vernon Park," intersected it with carriage ways and sidewalks, erected a fountain in the center, installed gas and water pipes and put up a post and chain fence. There were drinking fountains, lamp posts and large park lanterns and lush plantings.
• In 1899 Andrew Carnegie was visiting the White House when he heard about the need for a library building in Washington. His contribution eventually totaled $375,000, making it one of the largest donations of the 1,679 library buildings constructed with his funding. There was interest in erecting the library where the National Archives is now located, but Senator McMillan, who was spearheading a movement to beautify the city and complete L'Enfant's plan, favored Mount Vernon Park, and his opinion won out.
• The New York firm of Ackerman and Ross was selected from among 24 competing architectural firms. Albert Randolph Ross had studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in France before working for the prominent firm of McKim, Mead and White. Their design was elegant but, given limited funds, the decoration on the inside was simplified.
• The Washington Public Library was dedicated on January 7, 1903 at a ceremony attended by President Theodore Roosevelt and Andrew Carnegie. There as well was Theodore W. Noyes, associate editor of the Evening Star, and the driving force behind the establishment of the public library, for which he served as board chairman for 50 years.
• The grand entrance was on the south side of the building along K street, with a special bicycle entrance below. The north side held the stacks — thus the slotted windows to bring in light.
• The stacks in the library were closed to the public. Patrons gave their requests to librarians, who then went in search of the books and brought them back to the "delivery room." There was a children's room from the beginning, and also a bookbindery. In response to Pearl Harbor, the library opened a special War Reading Room during World War II.
• Although the building at Mount Vernon Square served as the central library for almost 70 years, during much of that time it was overcrowded by books as well as people. In 1970, the public library was moved to the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library.
• In 1980, the partially renovated building opened as part of the University of the District of Columbia.
• In 1998, Monica Scott Beckham, Vice President of the Board of Trustees of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. went before the Chairman and members of the House of Representatives Treasury Sub-committee to ask for federal appropriations for a City Museum. Congress appropriated $2,000,000 in 1999 "provided that the District of Columbia shall lease the Carnegie Library at Mount Vernon Square to the Society…for 99 years at $1 per year..."
• The City Museum opened in May 2003. Although the museum closed at the end of 2004, the Historical Society continues to serve the Washington community through its library, publications, and exhibits.
For more information, see: Hoagland, Alison K., The Carnegie Library: The City Beautiful Comes to Mt. Vernon Square. Washington History, Volume 2, Number 2, fall/winter 1990-91.