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Going Up?

The MLK Jr. Memorial Library’s elevator banks get a million-dollar deposit.

Whatever effect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe may have had in mind when he designed the elevators in his Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, it probably wasn’t abject squalor. But venture into the 30-year-old facility’s public elevators and you’ll find that they haven’t exactly aged well.

The metal wall panels, fields of tiny oval dots, have dark patches like those on a dirty screen door. Broken remains of red plastic signs hang on screws, surrounded in one case by black smudges. One elevator sports a torn white sticker with “Cypress Hill” scrawled on it in black. The floors are grizzled, gray flecked with black and white; the lighting is humming, office-variety fluorescent.

“It looks like a dungeon,” says one patron.

The elevators’ dismal condition—and frequent disrepair—has become the stuff of District legend. Visitors have discovered over the years that trying to get the machines to respond to their floor requests is a lot like playing a dark, crusty slot machine. And those who opt for the stairs find themselves in a windowless maze of doors—printed signs with messages such as “NE to Stairs” have been added, but once you’re inside you have to search amid a sea of other signs reading “Staff Only” and “Fire Door Keep Closed.”

But now the elevators are in the midst of a $1.19 million upgrade, to provide low-voltage, high-intensity halogen lamps, granite-finish floors, and new control panels and elevator drives run by microprocessors. The wall panels will be either replaced or repaired.

Seven of the library’s 11 elevators are slated to be finished by Nov. 12, according to the District’s Office of Property Management (OPM), the agency responsible for repairing and renovating District-government facilities; plans for the other four are still in the design phase.

The repairs won’t come a moment too soon. The elevators are as old as the building, according to the OPM. D.C. Public Library spokesperson Monica Lofton source says that the request for elevator improvements was submitted to the city about a decade ago but was stalled for budget reasons.

The library elevators are “beyond their useful life,” Lofton says, with old parts that are no longer available in some cases.

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“When they go to fix them, it’s sort of like a Band-Aid,” library patron Jackie L. Chandler observes.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, several library visitors express dismay at the current condition of the elevators—and relief at the news that repairs are coming.

Maryland residents Allison Downes and Steve Periconi are making their first trip to the library. “I just felt very cramped and kind of scared,” Downes says of her time in the lift. Periconi says that the elevator has “kind of a locker-room smell.”

“Kudos,” says D.C. resident Jenny Phan when told of the renovation plans. “That’s awesome.”

Not every problem with the elevators will be solved by the upgrade. Aimee Occhetti, special assistant to the director at the OPM, says that “refurbished elevators will be compliant” with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). But though the new control panels will be ADA-compliant, the elevators will remain narrower than the ADA Accessibility Guidelines standard of 80 inches that would be required for new construction or wholesale rebuilding jobs.

On the same afternoon, Linda Royster, executive director of the Disability Rights Council of Greater Washington, gets into a car with me to check how its current condition compares with ADA standards. With a tape measure, she pegs the width at about 72 inches. She also sets the elevator in motion, to see whether it currently beeps, per ADA, to mark each passing floor.

“These elevators would be very difficult for a person who is blind or of low vision to use,” Royster says. (Not all buttons on the current panels have Braille markings.) “And they would be very difficult for a person in a powerchair to use, because they’re way too small.”

Descending from the second floor to the first-floor lobby, the car comes to a stop, but the doors don’t open. Royster presses the buttons and nothing happens. It’s stuck.

She opens the emergency-call cabinet. Inside is a rotary phone, along with a crumpled Newport cigarette box and a few crushed napkins. There’s no answer at the first number listed on the emergency list, but the second connects her with library security staff.

Soon, Royster and I are having a muffled conversation with a security guard through the thick doors. At the guard’s request, I press the second-floor button, but nothing happens. I try prying the doors open, and the guard does the same. By joint effort or coincidence, the doors slide open.

We step out. The elevator is frozen two or three inches above the lobby floor. The whole experience has taken just over six minutes.

Later on, on one of the upper floors, there’s a photocopied sign taped to the door of that elevator: “THIS ELEVATOR IS OUT OF SERVICE We apologize for this inconvenience while repairs are being made.” CP