Hello! Intern Katie Willard blogging about our last lecture in our “Welcome to Georgetown” series about the Peabody Room at Georgetown Library, presented by Peabody Room Special Collections Librarian Jerry McCoy. Let us begin!
Jerry McCoy, Special Collections Librarian of the Peabody Room
The Peabody Room is not just any old library room; it has become the de facto Georgetown Historical Society. It contains all sorts of artifacts—not just books!—about the history of Georgetown, from newspaper clippings to portraits. However, that wasn’t the original purpose of the Peabody Room, or of the Georgetown Library.
Nathan C. Wyeth, DC Municipal Architect (and owner of a dapper mustache)
The Georgetown Library was the vision of a very important DC municipal architect, Nathan C. Wyeth. He was the District of Columbia’s Municipal Architect from 1934 to 1946, which was a nice time to have steady commissions, given that the Great Depression was going on. Wyeth was clearly a big fan of libraries, as he also designed the Petworth Library in 1939 (right at the intersection of Kansas Ave. & Georgia Ave., NW) and the District of Columbia Armory in 1941. However, his main architectural achievements were before his time as Municipal Architect: in 1905, he designed the Francis Scott Key Bridge—a bridge I’ve certainly crossed many a time. Most importantly of all, in 1909, he came up with the designs for the original West Wing and Oval Office, designs that have remained largely unchanged for the last century.
George Peabody, the namesake of many museums, schools, and libraries
Of course, Wyeth wasn’t the one who put up the funds to build the Georgetown Library. The library’s patron saint is a man by the name of George Peabody (1795 – 1869), who was a merchant, banker, and philanthropist. The man only had a sixth-grade education, but he was a shrewd businessman. Based on Jerry McCoy’s description, Peabody kind of sounds like Ebenezer Scrooge at the end of A Christmas Carol—a frugal man all his life who turns to charity toward the end. He is known as the “father of modern philanthropy” because his donations weren’t just limited to Georgetown: he also left a lot of money to the city of Baltimore, and he is the namesake of the Yale (and Harvard, I suppose) Peabody Museum (which excites me because I’m from Connecticut). Anyway, he bestowed some of his goodwill upon Georgetown because in 1816, he moved his business operations to Georgetown.
Peabody dictated in his 1867 will that he wanted his money put in a trust to fund a variety of educational organizations. The trust contained fifteen thousand dollars earmarked for the creation of a library in Georgetown. (Before you think, “What an incredible donation!” Peabody set aside one million dollars for Baltimore, so Georgetown is on the lower end of his charity.) It took nine years, but the Peabody Library Association established a subscription collection on Curtis St. (what we now know as O St. NW). In 1935, the Georgetown branch of the DC Public Library opened, and the new library featured the first Peabody Room. By 1979, the collection and trust were turned over to the DC Public Library, which owns the Georgetown Library to this day.
I mentioned that the Peabody Room had an eclectic collection, but it still has some of the classics. It contains two thousand books, mostly about DC and Maryland history (Georgetown used to be part of Maryland before George Washington came stomping in). Surprisingly, there aren’t a lot of books specifically about Georgetown: some of the ones featured include Georgetown Houses, Georgetown Life, and—best of all—The Cupcake Diaries, which was written by the owner of Georgetown Cupcake. (Jerry McCoy asked if anyone in the audience had ever been to Georgetown Cupcake; I was the only one who raised my hand.) Those three topics pretty much sum up my reasons for visiting Georgetown: to marvel at old townhouses, to eat dinner and shop with friends (that counts as Georgetown Life, right?), and to embark on the famous Cupcake Crawl (Baked & Wired, Sprinkles, and Georgetown Cupcake all in one go).
Probably the most popular part of the Peabody Room’s collection is what Jerry McCoy called the “Vertical Files.” The Peabody Room has a Vertical File for every residence in Georgetown. The Vertical Files mostly consist of newspaper clippings, and it is not digitized. A place that’s been around so long has houses with history, after all. Who utilizes this resource the most? Real estate agents! They love combing through the files so they can add some history trivia to a listing. Homeowners also hit the Vertical Files, especially new homeowners. Longtime homeowners usually investigate the Vertical Files when they’re preparing to put their house back on the market.
Some pieces of the Peabody’s collection were gathered via untraditional means—like eBay. The most expensive purchase acquired through eBay was Account Ledger No. 2, 1894 – 1896 by Charles B. Hunter. Despite its unassuming title, this log of purchases is significant in two ways. First, it’s a primary source that contains information like who were the residents of Georgetown in 1894 to 1896 and what kinds of products they were buying. (In a great crossover moment, Mrs. Peter of Tudor Place is featured on one page.) Second, Charles B. Hunter was an anomaly in the sales world because he was African American, and it was a very rare occurrence for African Americans to be thriving business owners. The account ledger was shipped from Seattle, Washington. Why was the ledger in Seattle? Your guess is as good as mine!
Jerry McCoy’s favorite piece in the Peabody’s collection is “Old Yarrow,” a portrait of Yarrow Mamout. Like Charles B. Hunter, Yarrow was African American. He was a former slave, and he was Muslim. Besides seeming like quite the character, Yarrow rose to prominence because, at the time, it was reported that he was 140 years old. Although we know that his age is impossible—even today with penicillin—back then, Yarrow became a minor celebrity: the oldest man in Georgetown. The portrait that belongs to the Peabody Room was painted by James Alexander Simpson in 1822, when Simpson was only 17 years old. Even though “Old Yarrow” is McCoy’s favorite, the old guy is currently housed at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Letting go of Yarrow was hard for McCoy, but the loan is only for three years, and this way, Yarrow can be seen by more visitors. (If Yarrow looks familiar, he is also the subject of another portrait in Philadelphia.)
Farewell to Yarrow!
The Fire of ‘07
One of the most significant events in the Georgetown Library’s history happened this century—in 2007, to be precise. On April 30th, 2007, building contractors were installing minor improvements to the Georgetown Library. The contractors used a heat gun (basically a fancy blow-dryer) to remove old paint from the roof, as opposed to using caustic chemicals that could damage the building. Suddenly, the roof caught on fire. That actually wasn’t an awful thing, but the next move was a mistake: the contractors, instead of calling 911, attempted to put out the fire themselves. Well, it did not go well. The roof collapsed, but amazingly, the Peabody Room survived the flames. (The Children’s Room was not so lucky.) Unfortunately, the Peabody Room did suffer extensive water damage, a problem that could turn into a museum conservationist’s worst nightmare: mold.
Jerry McCoy, who was not at the library that day, rushed to the scene, and he saw firefighters carrying out all the paintings and manuscripts. To save the collection, a company called Page Conservation came in to store all the damaged artwork for three years—for no charge! Interestingly, wet materials were boxed, frozen, and shipped off to remain in a storage cooler in Fort Worth, Texas. The freezing was to prevent a moldy nightmare.
Upon the collection’s return, the frozen materials were freeze-dried to avoid further damage. I was surprised to learn that by January 2008, parts of the collection were available for public viewing. Although the fire was terrifying, McCoy looked on the bright side: one of the best ways to reconnect with your collection is to go through it by hand!
Some of the more adorable patrons of the Peabody Room
The fire also allowed the Peabody Room to undergo a renovation. The previous room was cramped, with boxes of files stuffed under desks. Now, the new room is very classy and spacious. Visitors to the Peabody Room range from kindergarteners to PhD candidates. Some of McCoy’s favorite visitors included a group of George Peabody Elementary School first graders, who got to learn about the namesake of their school as well as touch the weather vane that survived the fire.
Unfortunately, that list of visitors will not include the participants of our “Historic Georgetown” Bus Tour on this Saturday: the Georgetown Library was unexpectedly flooded. Aw, man. Well, I'll definitely be stopping by the Peabody Room after it gets fixed. However, we will be visiting all of the other five sites—Old Stone House, Oak Hill Cemetery, Dumbarton Oaks Gardens, the C&O Canal, and Tudor Place—in addition to doing a walking tour of Georgetown University. Get your tickets for the bus tour here. We meet at the Holiday Inn Capitol at 6th St. & C St. SW, and I’ll be the one with my clunky camera! Can’t believe that this series is over, but I’m very excited for the tour on Saturday!