“We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.”
Sir Winston Churchill was the most powerful statesman of his generation, and he remains an indelible symbol of British tenacity, wit, and honor.
His American connections were quite strong, though. Churchill’s mother, Jennie Jerome, was a New Yorker, and Churchill himself was granted honorary U.S. citizenship in 1963. That is partly why the International Churchill Society (ICS) wanted to create a strong Churchillian presence in Washington, DC. That ambition was realized in October 2016, when the National Churchill Library and Center (NCLC) at The George Washington University opened.
Because Churchill was a man of true historic importance, we designed the library to reflect his august legacy in a new and modern way.
The NCLC occupies 5,800 square feet within the university’s Estelle and Melvin Gelman Library. It is the first research facility in the United States dedicated to the study of Winston Churchill, and it currently houses 2,000 volumes.
In addition to study rooms and exhibition space, the NCLC includes staff offices and event space and offers a wide array of programming inspired by the center’s namesake. The many NCLC speakers thus far include General David Petraeus, Irish Ambassador to the U.S. Daniel Mulhall, and former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.
“Having the Churchill Library in the center of Washington is symbolically very important, given the fact that Winston Churchill’s legacy remains so vital to many people in positions of leadership,” said Michael F. Bishop, director of the NCLC. “There’s something compelling about having this only five blocks from the Oval Office.”
The idea for the NCLC originated with the ICS (formerly known as the Churchill Centre), which was founded in 1968 and is the premier membership organization dedicated to preserving the legacy of Sir Winston Churchill. The ICS had long desired a permanent home for Churchill studies in Washington, and found an enthusiastic partner in The George Washington University, which had underutilized space in the Gelman Library.
Infusing a space with the personality of a historic figure was familiar territory for Ayers Saint Gross. Our firm designed both the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mt. Vernon and the Visitor Center & Smith Education Center at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.
In the case of the NCLC, the challenge was to create a “building within a building” at the existing library. The project demanded a collaborative, interdisciplinary design team that included architects, interior designers, and graphic designers.
At the project’s outset, members of our design team traveled to England in search of inspiration. We visited Chartwell, Churchill’s country estate in Kent, which provided some key colors and tones that made their way into our final design.
During our research trip, we also explored the Churchill War Rooms, a WWII-era London bunker that now serves as a museum. The War Rooms are a key precedent for the NCLC. The space set aside within the Gelman Library for the project was below grade, not unlike the War Room’s subterranean location. To create new volume and add height to the NCLC’s long and narrow space, the ceiling was left exposed and painted a dark tone.
“The design of the space is attractive and striking, a sleek silvery space. The exposed ceiling is suggestive of the Cabinet War Rooms in London, which I like very much,” Bishop said. “The NCLC is very distinct from the rest of the building, and distinct from the area immediately outside it.”
The NCLC features a fritted glass entryway that balances visibility and privacy. Our team also designed a wordmark for the NCLC and some interior signage. The result is a richly layered design that draws visitors into the space.
In addition to Chartwell and the War Rooms, our design had another distinctly Churchillian inspiration: his signature cigar. Churchill often smoked Romeo y Julietas, a brand with a distinctive red band that encircled a brown wrapper. Drawing on that color palette, we created high-gloss red thresh holds embedded within dark wood walls.
Churchill’s love of cigars also inspired another major NCLC design feature: the “cigar.” This three-dimensional element divides the center into a more publicly oriented event space near the entrance and smaller, more private spaces for staff and individual study in the back. The warm walnut panels also have an acoustical function, separating the public-facing space from the quiet work and gallery area.
“The opening of Churchill’s permanent home in your nation’s capital is truly a thrilling moment. I am more confident than ever that Churchill’s legacy will now be secure in the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
Today the NCLC is open 24 hours a day to The George Washington University community, and to the public five days a week. In addition to the library’s primary collection, the library features a touch-screen exhibit that allows visitors to see photographs and documents from Churchill’s life. This interactive element drew inspiration from a similar exhibit in the Churchill War Rooms in London. The chance to engage with Churchill’s life and legacy so far from his homeland is a draw for scholars and tourists alike.
“We’re a very unusual resource in that we offer visitors a unique glimpse into the life and career of Winston Churchill right in the heart of Washington, DC. We do that with books, documents, artifacts, and other exhibits, as well as outstanding programming with very prominent speakers,” Bishop said.
The design, construction, and ribbon cutting of the NCLC happened on a tight schedule. The project’s kickoff meeting was in June 2014 and it had to be completed before the end of 2016..
The grand opening was held on October 29, 2016. Speaking at the event, Randolph Churchill, Winston Churchill’s great-grandson, remarked of the importance of the project: “The opening of Churchill’s permanent home in your nation’s capital is truly a thrilling moment. I am more confident than ever that Churchill’s legacy will now be secure in the land of the free and the home of the brave.”