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Peabody Sculpture Added to Library

By Mark LiebermanCurrent Correspondent

Eight years ago, construction workers using a heat gun on exterior wood accidentally started a fire that destroyed the entire Georgetown Library building.

It took three years and $16 million to reconstruct the building. Now five more years have passed, and to celebrate the anniversary of its reopening, the library is unveiling a new bust in its historic Peabody Room.

Jerry McCoy, the special collections librarian at the library, has been hoping to add a bust of George Peabody — who donated money to found the library — to the collection since the reopening five years ago.

“I just thought having a portrait bust for the Peabody Room would just add classy on top of classy that was already embodied by the new Peabody Room when we reopened in 2010,” McCoy said. “It’s just an amazing collection.”

McCoy spent that time searching for a bust on eBay and in antique shops. In the fall of 2013, he mentioned his search to an acquaintance, who suggested Jeannette Murphy.

Murphy majored in painting at George Washington University before spending her career working at the World Bank. Once she retired, she headed back to her alma mater to audit art classes and eventually developed an interest in sculpture. She gladly took McCoy up on his proposal.

“He said he had no funds for a project like that but he would try to find some,” Murphy said.

Murphy worked on the bust from an old photograph of Peabody intermittently for three weeks before putting it in the kiln. When Murphy contacted McCoy last fall to let him know that the bust was done, he said he still hadn’t come up with funding. Murphy offered to donate the bust to the library instead.

“I thought, ‘I’ve learned so much about Mr. Peabody, a very generous soul himself,’” Murphy said.

The bust will be unveiled in the Peabody Room this Saturday at an event that will honor the space’s history. It’s named after George Peabody, who left $15,000 for the Georgetown neighborhood to open its own branch of the D.C. Public Library, which it did in 1935.

To thank Peabody for his contribution, the library administration named a room after him, filling it with documentation of Georgetown history. McCoy thinks the impulse to preserve the past was new for that time period.

“The very fact of that always amazes me,” McCoy said. “This was 1935. There was no such thing as a concept of historic preservation then. These Georgetown families were very proud of their neighborhood and their history.”

McCoy thinks of the room as a makeshift historical society for Georgetown, which doesn’t have an official one of its own.

The original space was on the second floor of the library building, but after the reconstruction, the Peabody Room ended up in the attic. McCoy recognizes the irony.

“We always tell people to preserve their family materials, don’t put them in the basement or the attic,” McCoy said. “And here the Peabody Room is in the attic.”

The room has undergone renovations in the years since the reopening. Air conditioning keeps the temperature consistent. Security cameras keep watch over the historic artifacts. But McCoy says the room’s modernity is hidden well.

“When you walk in, even though it looks old, it’s all 2010 construction,” McCoy said.

On Saturday at 2 p.m., visitors can expect a small celebration that pays tribute to Peabody and showcases the Peabody Room and its contents.

“It’s just going to be a fun little event,” McCoy said. “We’ll have the unveiling and cut some birthday cake.”

This article appears in the May 20 article in The Georgetown Current newspaper.