13 Nov 2017


Lost Capitol Hill: The RL Christian Library

The changes on H Street are coming so quickly at this point that every time I drive by, it seems as if major changes have happened again. Therefore, it behooves us to look at some of the pieces that have disappeared recently. (Also, I begged Robert to do some research.–MHC)

In the early 1970s, at the urging of community leaders, the DC Library system began opening a series of storefront libraries. These satellite locations made it easier for their patrons living too far from the larger libraries to get the services they supplied.

Thus, on a “hot, humid Sunday afternoon” a small but hardy group of people congregated in front of a former blood bank on H Street NE, near 10th Street. While the draw was being there for a new library to open, part of the attraction was also the attendance of the Stanton Park Drum and Bugle Corps. No. 2. The bugle corps, which on a previous occasion had managed to march the wrong way from a ceremony, was late, and the bystanders began to suspect the worst.

Fortunately, they arrived – a little late, but they arrived – along with the obligatory Lincoln Continental and associated dignitaries. The new library was formally opened, and given the named Robert L. Christian library.

Robert Lee Christian (pic) was a former school teacher who gave up his job to open the Northeast Neighborhood House: a place where the youth of the neighborhood could congregate to read, apply for jobs and be mentored. Begun as a summer-only program, Christian kept it open even after the start of school in order to continue to help the youngsters. He was a strong advocate for his kids, and when a group of young men got in a fight nearby, Christian sent a letter to the editor of the Washington Post rejecting any attempt to pin the blame on those who were under his care. Sadly, Christian died about a year after opening his center, and when the new library was being planned, his name was an obvious choice for the new branch.

For the next eight years, the old blood bank served its community well. However, there were certain drawbacks to the location, not the least of which was that it was rented. So, on May 1, 1981, a new building was opened on the corner of 13th and H Streets NE. Marked by a curious, bulging architecture, it had room for 6,000 books, as well as the requisite study areas for old and young. It continued to carry the name of the former school teacher.

The RL Christian Library in its heyday. (CulturalTourismDC)

Over the years, even as H Street revitalization went apace, the library hung on as a reminder of times past– even as it added Wifi and other more modern amenities. In 2009 it closed. While it was used for a while for art installations and as the box office for the Fringe Festival, its eventual use remained in limbo. A number of projects were proposed, but it was not until earlier this year that finally all the parts came together and ground was broken for a small mixed-use development with a delivery planned for next year.

Today, all that remains is a sign from the Greater H Street Heritage Trail  with a picture of the old library, as well as one of its namesake.

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