Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington


The Internet, say all indicators in Arlington’s Cherrydale neighborhood, will not soon replace the public library.

Not with the spirit that abounded in stacks at Cherrydale Library Saturday when, amid balloons, an outdoor banner, a history display and a cake, a standing-room crowd of patrons from all generations celebrated the 50th anniversary of that cathedral-like temple of knowledge.

To the passel of attendees who spent our childhoods in that neighborhood, it was jarring to ponder the half-century of elapsed time. We still think of it as the “new” Cherrydale library on Military Road that in 1961 replaced the ramshackle, poorly lit former clinic that once stood near what is now Essy’s restaurant at Quincy Street and Lee Highway.
Broad perspective on the event was provided by Rep. Jim Moran, who remarked on how the avant-garde slanted building is “tucked into physical foundation of the community.” He noted how some oppressive governments consider libraries a threat, and how early childhood reading habits help break the cycle of poverty. He lamented the 38,000 public-sector jobs lost around the country last month, some of them librarians. “A place to go read in serenity-it’s hard to put a price on it.”

The branch’s original deputy architect Judson Gardner, who at age 87 drove up from Orange, Va., reminisced about challenges of designing the unique building with its third-floor back entrance on a 30-foot slope in a residential neighborhood packed with prized trees.

The result-one of 185 community and university libraries his firm built nationwide-on this day was given a green building award from Arlingtonians for a Clean Environment.

The back story was told with a personal touch by accomplished Cherrydale historian Kathryn Holt Springston. As the county’s oldest branch, this library goes back to 1922 when an embryonic collection was assembled by the Cherrydale Volunteer Fire Department, League of Women Voters, and Patrons League (later the PTA). It was housed at various sites near the community’s main intersection, including the old Cherrydale School.

The push to build today’s branch began in 1957, when eight civic associations and PTAs banded together (their leader met with the county board 50 times). Ground was broken Sept. 4, 1960, remarkably just as Arlington’s Central Library, less than a mile away, was also under construction. (Its proximity is cited whenever the county considers closing Cherrydale during budget squeezes.)

Springston’s exuberance comes through in her recollection of the old library, with its books piled in seemingly random piles: “I can picture the sunlight streaming through the windows, the dust glimmering in its rays, and still imagine smelling that wonderful old book smell! The fans in summer just seemed to stir the shimmering heat around, and the noisy rumbling and awful smell of the furnace in winter only added to the ambience.”

Springston had read every book in that home away from home. So it took her a while to warm to the “new” one’s neat stacks, soft carpet, bright lights and coolness, where “I admit I haven’t read even a quarter of the books.”

Other library fans told of intellectual worlds opened or their first library card. I can recall specific titles on the shelves that caught my young eye.

Arlington has done well with its reconstituted libraries, recently at Shirlington and Westover. The celebration should be duplicated across the country.


Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at cclarkjedd@aol.com