For many years, the mantra of municipal leaders and town planners has been “progress equals prosperity,” reasoning that development and economic growth are the primary means of ensuring fiscal success. Unfortunately, progress has also often meant destruction of those sites and landscapes essential to the character of an area. The Hyattsville Library is the perfect example- few other buildings can boast a flying saucer!
At the Friends of the Hyattsville Library meeting on July 2, Area Manager Catherine Hollerbach confirmed that the county plans to replace the building with a new, state-of-the art facility that, according to library system staff and county officials, will better serve our community. The existing library is badly in need of renovations and does not meet modern code. Proponents of demolition say a new library is necessary and represents (you guessed it) “progress” as Hyattsville continues to grow.
The library’s numerous and vocal supporters think differently, and were recently backed up by Preservation Maryland. Each year, the
statewide organization releases a list of endangered sites chosen for their historical significance and value to the state’s local character. The 2014 list includes an 18th-century shipwright’s house in Somerset County, a former tannery in Frederick, Baltimore’s Mechanic Theater, and the Hyattsville Library, among others. These buildings are unique to our communities; if they are lost, with them goes a chapter of Maryland history.
Preservation Maryland works to preserve these buildings for the next generation, not for us. A crumbling tannery or old farmhouse may not look worth the cost and effort to save, but in most cases their value only increases with age. A community’s individual character, those special things that exist nowhere else, is what makes it attractive to residents, visitors, and business.
The Hyattsville Library was of particular note to the historians, because it is both architecturally rare and historically important. Its design was meant to communicate progress in its own way — “rocketing” the area from a rural community into a vibrant Washington, D.C. suburb.
The “asymmetrical footprint, clean lines, and reduced ornamentation” of the exterior mark it as a Mid-Century Modern building designed at the height of the Space Race. At the time, buildings were sleek and compact like the machines that were taking astronauts into space.
The building’s history reflects a very personal side of Hyattsville. It was dedicated to the memory of John F. Kennedy in March 1964, specifically recognizing the president’s achievements in advancing American technology and healing the country’s deep racial divide. Prince George’s County was for many years an area of extremely low literacy and notoriously poor school systems. The Hyattsville library, never segregated, was the first public library in the county and provided new opportunities for everyone to have access to quality educational materials.
Preservation Maryland’s goal in publishing its list of endangered places is to raise awareness, supporting local voices advocating for the preservation of community landmarks. The most important question in the controversy surrounding the library is not what renovations will cost or what challenges the building presents. Instead, let’s ask whether this building makes our community unique.
The Hyattsville Library is iconic. The preservation of the library is progress, demonstrating that our community wants to maintain its history and character going forward.
Gray O’Dwyer is an architectural historian and West Hyattsville resident.