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When Stuart Gosswein gazes at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, he isn’t looking at a building full of books. He’s witnessing a work of art.

Every day on his way to work, Gosswein walks by the sleek black box of a building, which for three decades has served as the central branch of the District’s public library system. Every day, he admires the rationality of its right angles, the perfection of its proportions, and the logic of its transparent design.

“Even though it’s a cold building,” says Gosswein, “it manages to be warm and inviting.”

On a balmy Wednesday morning in early April, Gosswein stands in front of the library on G Street NW in downtown D.C. and rhapsodizes about its external features. From the scale of the flagpole to the originality of the granite sidewalk to the luminescence of the windows, no bit of aesthetic mastery escapes Gosswein’s attention.

Gosswein, a painter, sculptor, and co-founder of the Downtown Artists Coalition, is dressed for the occasion: black jacket, black jeans, black shoes with black laces. “It’s a little warm for this jacket,” says Gosswein. “But at least I match the building.”

The library opened in 1972, replacing the old Carnegie Library at Mount Vernon Square, and was designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the wunderkind modernist architect who happens to be Gosswein’s favorite. Gosswein grew up in Chicago, which is also home to the majority of Mies’ work in America. When Gosswein moved to the District 25 years ago, he was pleased to find a reminder of his hometown lurking on G Street, just around the corner from his art studio. It is the only Mies building in all of D.C.

Recently, Gosswein has become something of a library activist, stirred to vigilance not by the usual culprits—D.C.’s high adult illiteracy, low library circulation, and shrinking book budget—but by the slim possibility that Mies’ building might someday vanish.

The threat of the wrecking ball comes from a city planning document. In September, city officials released a request for proposals for the redevelopment of the old convention center, which sits a block north of the library. The request included a rough breakdown of what the city officials want on the new site. Their wish list included retail outlets, residential units, open space—and a new central library. The District hopes to break ground on the new complex by 2005.

What does that portend for the future of the MLK Library? Andrew Altman, the director of D.C. Office of Planning, who has been the driving force behind the proposed new library, says that the MLK building will survive in one form or another. If the city builds the new central library—at this point, it’s far from a done deal—it will find a second life for the MLK building. Perhaps it will become offices, or a mixed-use shopping complex, or a museum.

Pure guff, says Gosswein. You can’t trust your only Mies building to a government with a mixed record of protecting historic properties. Gosswein suspects that without intervention on the part of preservationists, the current mayoral administration will sell the MLK building to the highest bidder, who will then knock it to the ground.

In the mid-’60s, when city officials chose the location for the central public library, they hoped that the project would spur revitalization in downtown D.C. But for three decades, the area around the library languished.

These days, signs of the downtown real-estate boom surround the MLK Library. Gosswein turns in a circle and points at the architecture rising near Mies’ masterpiece. To the east, G Street runs smack into downtown D.C.’s favorite plaything, the MCI Center. Across the street from the MLK Library, workers are refurbishing the Mather Building—which the city once owned, then abandoned, then sold to developer PN Hoffman. To the west, überdeveloper Doug Jemal is revamping the old Woodward & Lothrop building.

The red-hot real-estate market has cast a warm glow of attention on every run-down or underutilized piece of property in downtown D.C. Seen through our current boom goggles, today’s eyesores look like tomorrow’s treasures. So after years of ignoring the central library and politely looking in the other direction when strolling down G Street, suddenly residents are focused on the MLK building.

Already, scores of District operatives are lining up for the political staring contest. The Committee of 100 on the Federal City and the Downtown Artists Coalition want the Mies building to house books—and not under the banner of Barnes & Noble. They favor a complete overhaul for the library, which has been estimated at $75 million. Consumer advocate Ralph Nader, who recently started a watchdog group called the D.C. Library Renaissance Project, wants a utopian city in which everyone reads; it’s not clear yet how MLK fits into that scheme. And the Downtown DC Business Improvement District, a cabal of development advocates, sides with Altman and Mayor Anthony A. Williams in welcoming a new library. Preliminary estimates put its cost at $150 million.

To stop the development lobby, Gosswein and his fellow preservationists are trying to secure historic-landmark status for the MLK Library. The designation would protect the building from demolition. But Gosswein and others want more. The MLK building is the only library Mies ever designed, and they want to keep it that way. Most landmark applications safeguard only the building’s exterior, but the MLK loyalists hope to preserve its function as well.

Gosswein walks through the front doors of the library, passes through the metal detectors, and saunters into the foyer. “You immediately become aware of the reading rooms on either side,” says Gosswein, glancing left, then right. “The layout of the building is evident right away subconsciously.”

The building’s “good flow” eventually steers Gosswein through a labyrinth of dingy staircases and unmarked doors to a bookshelf in the Art Division. Without consulting a card catalogue or a computer terminal, Gosswein locates a cherished stash of books—the library’s Mies collection.

After thumbing through some black-and-white photographs of Mies buildings, Gosswein points out how well the surrounding space works as a library. Mies once said, “God is in the details,” and gazing across the reading room, Gosswein encounters the divine. God is in the large glass windows that allow patrons to simultaneously read books and “dialogue with the city.” God is in the ratio of shelf space to floor space. God is in the black-metal bookshelves.

“Everything works,” says Gosswein.

To less aesthetically discerning eyes, something else is apparent from a stroll through the MLK Library: Nothing works. Not the overhead lights, which flicker. Not the security cameras, which stare blankly into the halls. Not the elevators on one side of the building, which languish behind the library’s unofficial emblem: an “Out of Order” sign.

When Angela Purnell beholds the library, she doesn’t revel in any celestial flourishes. She sees a hellish mess. For the past 16 years, it has been Purnell’s job to keep the library up and running. “It’s like living in poverty,” says Purnell, the director of facilities management for the D.C. Public Library.

There is never enough to go around.

This year, for every square foot of the library, Purnell has roughly $1.40 to spend on maintenance. The budget is just enough for what Purnell calls “mission critical”—that is, fixing anything that would shut down the library, postponing work on everything else. Over the years, Purnell has made some tough choices for the library: cutting back on toilet paper, washing the floors without soap, forgoing ergonomic furniture.

Even so, mechanical problems periodically close the library. Since 1972, the MLK Library has chased away patrons with a panoply of natural and man-made disasters. Electrical explosions. Chemical fumes. Heat waves. Cold fronts. And the occasional fire.

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Purnell pauses on her tour of the building and looks up at a plastic sheet that has been suspended from the ceiling. During the summer, when the air conditioning is on, the pipes leak, washing away pieces of the ceiling, staining the carpet, and threatening to dump asbestos into the air. Purnell responds by deploying plastic sheets and buckets. At least one group of the library’s constituents appreciate the pools of standing water: Mosquitoes breed there.

In 1999, library officials hired an engineering team to study the building and make recommendations about how to fix it. The engineers observed that high maintenance and energy bills were siphoning off the library’s already shallow budgets. They concluded that the city should stop patching up problems and completely overhaul the interior.

The following year, Kent Cooper, a D.C.-based architect, organized a team of colleagues to study the possibility of renovating the library. With assistance from the Downtown DC Business Improvement District, Cooper and others spent four months interviewing library staff, studying Mies’ oeuvre, and surveying the building’s surroundings. Eventually, they produced a 35-page booklet crammed with color drawings documenting a scheme for renovation. “What we tried to show is that there is a lot you could do within a historic context to make this a more friendly building,” says Cooper.

Cooper’s plan aimed to “transform a dark and rather squat box into a brighter, higher, and more inviting edifice.” Key proposals included glazing the black exterior in a silvery-white metallic paint and adding a fifth story to the building. The plan would overhaul the upper floors, creating an opulent reading room with lofty ceilings and skylights. A terrace and a parapet would decorate the roof.

In 2000, Cooper presented the study to the Board of Library Trustees, which welcomed the suggestions. “They were very charmed by our report,” recalls Cooper.

Alex Padro, a member of the D.C. Preservation League as well as the library board, says that Cooper’s recommendations won over many of those who had grown disenchanted with MLK. “Their blinders were lifted,” says Padro. “For the first time, they saw the true potential of the building.”

Molly Raphael, the director of the D.C. Public Library, says she appreciates Cooper’s pro bono advice. At the same time, she can’t overlook what she views as the inherent bias of the report. “They had a single purpose,” says Raphael. “They wanted to prove that you could create a modern library while preserving the Miesian context. They weren’t as interested in the issue of what would make a better central library.”

These days, Raphael is leaning in favor of a new library. But she is still seeking an unbiased appraisal of the situation. Earlier this month, she hired Phillips Swager Associates, an architectural firm, to do a preliminary cost-benefit analysis of renovating the MLK Library vs. starting anew. “We’re trying to get a third party, a neutral party, to look at the issue and weigh the pros and cons,” says Raphael. “I’m really trying to look objectively at both options.”

In the meantime, Purnell will keep posting the ubiquitous “Out of Order” signs and directing the bucket brigade. If it were up to her, she’d move out and start over. “There’s a psychological problem with working in a dilapidated building,” says Purnell. “It doesn’t give people any hope.”

When it comes to planning the future of downtown D.C., Andrew Altman isn’t in the mood to multitask. He wants to move forward one step at a time. So before answering any questions about the future of the MLK Library, Altman takes a step back. First things first. He wants to discuss the redevelopment of the old convention center.

Just up the street from MLK, the convention center crouches on an expansive parcel of land, stretching from 11th Street to 9th Street and from H Street up to New York Avenue. Anyone who has been watching the war in Iraq will recognize a similarity between the 880,000-square-foot convention center and many of the brutalist concrete structures recently shelled by B52s in Baghdad. And like them, the old convention center is not long for this world. It is scheduled for demolition sometime this spring.

“You wake up in the morning and you have 10-and-a-half acres that are city-owned in the heart of the downtown,” says Altman. “That’s an astounding opportunity. What do we do with the site?”

In the summer of 2000, Mayor Williams corralled 45 developers, architects, and business leaders into a blue-ribbon task force to study the future of the parcel. Altman oversaw the process. “At the end of the day, one of our primary goals was to create a place that will be for Washingtonians,” says Altman. “A place that won’t be seen as the Mall, that won’t be seen as the federal city. This will be an expression of local Washington.”

Or, in the view of detractors, another dead space downtown. In recent decades, the city has signed off on development proposals that yielded such notable failures as Freedom Plaza and Franklin Park. Ward 2 D.C. Councilmember Jack Evans fears that Altman’s plan for the convention-center site could be another dreadful case in point. In a recent meeting, Altman and other city officials showed Evans sketches of the envisioned development, complete with pedestrians, shopping, and outdoor cafes. Evans noted, “I’m in a room with a lot of dreamers….That’s the picture in their minds that has never worked in the District of Columbia. It may work in L.A. It may work in other cities. It has never worked here.”

But it did work in New York. To stoke the brainstorming process, Altman in spring 2001 organized a field trip to some of Manhattan’s great public spaces, including the 42nd Street New York Public Library and the adjacent Bryant Park. “It was vibrant,” recalls Altman. “It was spring. People were sitting outside. It was filled with folks. They have movies at night. That seems like a really great place.

“A light bulb went off,” adds Altman. “I said, ‘This could be really great for our city.’”

Enter MLK.

“I realized that we have a central library today that is in significant need of repair,” says Altman. “They are going to have to put a lot of money in just to stay where they are. Two, it’s not really connected with a great public space.”

Within months, Altman’s Office of Planning had put together a PowerPoint presentation highlighting how other cities—including Seattle and Phoenix—had revitalized downtown spaces by building new libraries. In 2001, Altman pitched the idea to the Board of Library Trustees. Some members, including President Marie Harris Aldridge, loved

the notion of moving into new digs. But

Padro objected.

As a member of the D.C. Preservation League, Padro had applauded the Cooper sketches for renovating MLK. At the time of Cooper’s presentation, city officials had been supportive as well—or so Padro thought. Recently, however, Mayor Williams proposed cutting $6.5 million from the fiscal year 2004 capital budget that had been set aside for renovating MLK. What had changed their minds? Padro suspected a coverup.

By moving the central library to a new site, Padro reasons, the city will be paving the way for a lucrative side deal. “The land is worth more without MLK on it,” says Padro. “And you have to look at this administration’s track record. The mayor and Andy Altman will say they have no intention of knocking down MLK, but I don’t believe them.”

“Actions speak louder than words,” he continues.

Padro thinks that the deal is already in the works, even if, like most conspiracy theories, his accusations are higher on anxiety than

on evidence.

One act in particular solidified Padro’s suspicions. Recently, representatives from the Office of Planning asked Richard Jackson, the assistant library director for management and support services, to perform a title search for the MLK building and to figure out how the building is zoned. “What possible reason would you have to do that unless you were intending to sell the building to an outside entity?” says Padro.

Jackson reads less into the request, which he says is part of a larger effort to prepare the MLK Library for the next step—be that renovation or adaptive reuse.

Lurking beneath Padro’s bluster lies the root of his discontent. Padro, like Gosswein, loves the building. He doesn’t want the library system to lose it. “Why should we give it up?” asks Padro. “If we move, we’ll probably end up in some box. There will be no sense of place. No sense of pride like we have here.”

Padro’s skepticism has little historical justification: The Carnegie Library, which preceded MLK, is an architectural jewel that will shortly debut as the city museum. And nobody thought the District would score an architect of Mies’ stature the last time around. In 1965, the Washington Post greeted the news that Mies would design the central library by noting, “It is altogether out of character for the District government to hire one of the great innovators of the generation.” And yet, it did.

Padro points out that, world-famous architect or not, a new building would cost roughly $75 million more than renovating the MLK Library. Why not spend that extra money on books?

Altman acknowledges that building a new library would probably be more expensive. But he says the city could offset the price difference by finding a secondary use for the MLK Library. “It could be good office space,” says Altman. “It could be good mixed use. It could be lots of things. You could keep the historic nature of the building but use it for another purpose that generates some revenue.”

“It’s not a question of demolishing the building,” says Altman. “People don’t need to be concerned that this is just a ruse in some way to demolish that building. That just wouldn’t happen. I’m advocating that the building would stay.”

Adapting the MLK Library for a new use should be easy, says Altman, thanks to Mies’ design sensibility. For this assessment, the planner relies on Mies himself. “We…make a practical and satisfying shape and then fit the function into it,” Mies told a reporter from the Washington Star in 1966. “Today, this is the only way to build, because the functions of most buildings are continually changing but economically the building cannot change. We do not let the function dictate the plan. Instead, let us make room enough for any function.”

Altman says it’s too early to start investigating a possible second use for the MLK Library. “There’s been no one so far who has come in and said, ‘We want that building,’” says Altman. “But I don’t think it would be tough to fill. Space is so limited downtown. You’d have lots of options.”

Perhaps not as many as the planning gods suppose. George Voris, senior vice president of Randall Hagner Ltd., a D.C. real-estate firm, thinks that one option makes the most sense: keep the building a library. Opting for any other use might well require changes to the underground parking garage, a pricey gutting of the interior, and any number of related hardships.

Despite rumblings that the new library is a fait accompli, Altman says the project is not a cinch. Currently, six development teams are competing to become the city’s partner in redeveloping the convention-center site.

Once the city has narrowed the field, sometime this summer, the developers will make specific recommendations for the site. “There may be a development team that makes a very good case for putting a new central public library in that spot,” says Chris Bender, the director of communications for the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development. “There may be a team that makes a good case for leaving the central library at MLK and using the available space for something else.”

Either way, several teams of top-notch developers will be trying to answer questions that have been ignored by District officials for decades: What’s the best way to revive a decrepit central library, and how do you pay for it?

“The reason we included the bit about the library in the [request for proposals] is to force a worthwhile and necessary debate,” says Bender. “It’s all a question of what is the best use of space.”

In Altman’s worldview, people who worry that the downtown development boom will doom the MLK Library have it backward. Downtown redevelopment is not a runaway train to be dodged. It’s a locomotive to harness. The rebuilding of the convention-center site could be the library’s last chance to get on board. “We wanted the library to be considered for this site,” says Altman, “because this is the time to do it. It’s a window of opportunity that comes once in a generation. This is your one chance.”

A gaggle of protesters huddles on the steps on the Wilson building, awaiting the arrival of Ralph Nader. It’s a rainy morning in late March. The war in Iraq has just started. Morale is low.

Earlier in the day, organizers tried to call off the gathering, but it was too late. People didn’t get the word in time. Now the organizers are zipping back and forth and talking in clipped voices on cell phones, and everyone is asking the same question: Will Nader show?

At around 9:30, Nader arrives on foot. He walks up the steps, pausing midway to launch into a salvo against a perceived injustice. Of all the topics ripe for a Nader-style tongue-lashing—American unilateralism overseas, U.S. dependency on oil, bombing for peace, Halliburton, freedom fries—Nader body-slams the pathetic state of the District’s libraries.

“It is appalling,” says Nader. “It is beyond appalling.”

Last year, Nader started his D.C. Library Renaissance Project to kick-start community support for the city’s lackluster libraries. At first, Nader intended to help out by raising money. But pretty soon, his goals changed. Before he started hitting up Washington philanthropists for big bucks, he wanted to feel confident that the money would go directly to the libraries and not get ambushed by a needy administration with a flair for creative accounting.

This past February, Nader sat down with Mayor Williams; Kelvin Robinson, the mayor’s chief of staff; and Carolyn Graham, the deputy mayor for children, youth, and families to discuss his role canvassing for the libraries. Leonard Minsky, director of the Renaissance Project, who also attended the meeting, recalls that at first the city officials misunderstood Nader’s intentions. “Carolyn Graham, in particular, thought that we were simply going to raise gobs of money for the library,” says Minsky. “It took us a while to convince her that raising money was not our sole or even primary purpose.”

Nader explained that whatever donations he raised for the libraries would be meant to augment the public funds, not replace them. It was still the mayor’s duty to increase the libraries’ budget—or at least hold the line. “We didn’t want to give the District government the opportunity to say, ‘Oh, now we don’t have to help the library ourselves,’” says Minsky. “We didn’t want to let them off the hook.”

Less than a month later, however, Williams appeared to be wriggling free of his commitment. He proposed that the city cut approximately $960,000 from the libraries’ operating budget for fiscal 2004—his fifth cut to the library budget in the past two years. The decrease would drop the fiscal 2004 budget to about $1 million less than what the public libraries received in fiscal year 2001.

Thus the protest. Thus the invective-spewing Nader. “The call for Mayor Williams is, ‘You want a fight?’” says Nader. “‘You’re going to get it.’”

Inside the Wilson Building, Nader and others testify about the proposed cuts in front of the D.C. Council’s Committee on Education, Libraries, and Recreation.

Director Raphael is one of the first to speak. She begins by telling the councilmembers in attendance that the D.C. libraries are already some of the most dilapidated in the nation. The budget cuts will sink the system to new depths.

In recent years, the libraries’ budget has been decreasing both in absolute and relative terms. The operating budget for the D.C. libraries in fiscal year 2003 was roughly $26 million, or about .7 percent of the city’s overall budget. In 1965, the library’s budget made up 1.4 percent of the budget.

Hanging in the air is one of the questions Gosswein and Padro keep asking: How can the city afford a $150 million new library when it stiffs the existing ones?

Raphael explains that to cope with the cuts, the library system has already sacrificed many services. It has closed branches early. Opened others late. Kept doors shut on weekends. Put off hiring new staff. And fallen behind neighboring jurisdictions in the all-important task of stockpiling Harry Potter books.

Raphael warns that if the proposed cuts pass through the council, then the library officials will have no choice: They will have to close two of the city’s 27 branches.

Nader reiterated the pitfalls of underfunding the library system. “I’m having trouble understanding how, after meeting with the mayor, he can send this devastating attack on the library system to the D.C. Council,” he says.

Earlier, members of Nader’s group circulated a paper penned in 1998 by then-mayoral candidate Williams called “A Vision for the D.C. Public Libraries.” “To date, the District has not sufficiently invested in its libraries and managed them as a viable public service,” wrote Williams. “Their facilities are in bad condition; leaky roofs, broken chairs, inadequate lighting and broken elevators are commonplace. Their books and technology are outdated.”

Ditto for the system under Williams’ watch. “When our photographer went around to the branches, he found the same conditions as 1998, or worse,” says Nader. “The mayor didn’t fix things. He made them worse.”

So far, Nader hasn’t come out for or against a new central library. But he does have some suggestions on where to look for more money. “Here are two cities: the affluent city, with booming K Street construction, contrasted with the part of the city mired in poverty and depredation,” says Nader. “The cuts in the budget now being considered most disproportionately impact the poorest communities in D.C.

“I put a principal responsibility [for raising money for the libraries] on the real-estate industry,” adds Nader. “They have an interest in these areas being revitalized. Yet they haven’t stepped up to the plate.”

If there’s anyone in town who’s entitled to nostalgia over the Mies building, it’s Raphael. She started working at the MLK Library the first day it opened. Over the past three decades, she has risen through the ranks, all the way from assistant children’s librarian to director, without leaving the building.

These days, she sits atop the bureaucracy in a spacious office on the fourth floor, with a broad view of downtown D.C. and a valuable collection of Mies furniture decorating the waiting room. Raphael has no water leaks in her office, and the mosquitoes stay away. She does, however, suffer from the same temperature extremes that patrons often bitch about.

Raphael says that after 30 years of working in one of his buildings, she has gleaned a bit of wisdom about Mies: It’s more fun to deconstruct his architecture from the safety of the classroom. “I was an art-history minor in college,” says Raphael. “I studied Mies van der Rohe. I remember thinking the first day this building opened, Wow, I’m working in a Mies building. It didn’t take long for me to change my opinion.”

These days, Raphael’s architectural tastes lean more toward Frank Lloyd Wright. In her spare time, she has traipsed through some of his creations, and even chitchatted with the maintenance workers on site. Raphael says she can relate to the stories they tell about, say, great ideas that leak. “Frankly, if you study architectural history—which I’ve done a little of, not a lot—you find that often buildings by great architects don’t necessarily function,” says Raphael. “They’re not maintenance-free.”

Although Raphael cares about Mies’ heritage in D.C., she’s not overly concerned about demolition of the MLK Library. “There are probably people in the economic-development office who would be thrilled if this weren’t a Mies van der Rohe building and it was designed by some no-name architect,” says Raphael. “But the potential of this site is still very good, even if we have a renovated building that’s kept in the Miesian vocabulary that’s not a public library but serves another purpose.”

Raphael knows that preservationists like Gosswein and planners like Altman who say they want to do what’s best for the MLK Library are motivated by ulterior concerns. The preservationists want to do what’s best for Mies’ legacy in Washington. The planners want to do what’s best for the redevelopment of the downtown. Raphael has a more narrow agenda: “We need to work for the very best library that we can.” CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.