Now that the pedestrian mall has met its fate, D.C.’s main library should be next.
Photograph by Charles Steck
Saying something about traffic circulating and people moving, Mayor Anthony A. Williams snipped some balloon strings on Monday, Oct. 25, to allow the first car to drive down the 900 block of G Street NW in 25 years. It took six months of construction and $1.2 million, but that god-awful pedestrian mall that obstructed the Martin Luther King Memorial Library and attracted little but rats and drunks is finally gone.
As a week’s worth of newspaper and TV clucking made clear, the new street is a major improvement to the block. But if they really want to improve life for Washingtonians, city officials should come back to G Street and finish the job: Now that they’ve demolished the pedestrian mall, they should take the wrecking ball to the library itself.
From its Darth Vader face mask to an elementary-school-style central mural that looks as if it were painted by Cool “Disco” Dan, the District’s central library is a blocklong advertisement for illiteracy. Whereas library buildings in other big cities use architecture to show that books are a passage to beauty and adventure, MLK’s decaying steel and glass suggest that reading is a one-way ticket to a lifetime in middle management at some declining corporation.
The library’s 1971 inception was yet another example of a world-famous architect taking a dump on D.C. And its upkeep since then has been a protracted case of our municipal government doing the very same thing. Inside, torn orange carpet wears stripes of duct tape. Toxic-looking water drips from every possible ceiling. Elevators designed for the Jetsons creak and moan, if they work at all.
And the bathrooms. Oh, the bathrooms…With their sewer-green tile, low ceilings, and prison-cell stalls, it’s no wonder every male prostitute in the city seems to have made use of them at one time or another. No amount of security seems to be able to keep the perverts out. Why should it? The building seems built for them, beckoning only those drawn to dank, dark corners of public space.
The library’s basement auditorium is so foreboding that chairs and a podium have taken up permanent residence next to the card catalog in the upstairs lobby—meaning people have to descend to the basement only under the most dire circumstances. There’s nothing like a trip to the basement to make a library patron feel like a potential crime victim. Wandering into the wrong hallway can land a visitor in a sensory-deprivation chamber of blazing white cinder block, fluorescent lights, exposed wiring, and steel doors marked sparely with a stenciled “Staff Only.” The basement art gallery could double as a fallout shelter.
Upstairs, the brown-brick corridors of MLK stand in stark relief against such places as the Boston public library, which opened in 1895 as a “palace for the people.” Complete with a French antique rouge marble fireplace, limestone balcony, English oak bookcases, and murals by John Singer Sargent, it features walls inscripted with words and designs representing lofty ideals of poetry, philosophy, and science. D.C.’s library, on the other hand, has aged like a Wal-Mart, with every bump and bulge clearly evident, its postal-worker metal shelves stained from the sludge that occasionally pours down from brown spots in the ceiling.
In New York, the main public library is the stuff of childhood memories, the drama of the building adding an element of awe to that first library card. Lions Patience and Fortitude guard its beaux-arts front. Its Doric columns and town-house-high ceilings draw great writers who sit among the books and create new ones. The New York library is a place people linger in and return to. In 1998, Calvin Trillin even wrote a poem about the reopening of the reading room after it was refurbished:
With clouds like archipelagoes
The ceilings like those great tableaus
They have in ancient French chateaus
Displaying angels in repose
In browns and greens and indigos
It’s hard to imagine any great writers looking up at the MLK ceiling and being so inspired. Of course, it’s hard to imagine any writers of note setting foot in the library at all. And if they did, just imagine how they’d wax poetic:
Ceilings like coffee-stained Styrofoam,
Rain asbestos motes down on homeless,
Streaked with mold and soot,
Ears ring with the hum of fluorescent lights.
When it comes to militating municipal landmarks, forget the standard ’90s rant in favor of saving the classic Wilson Building and ditching the generic One Judiciary Square. If you think about it, nothing brands D.C. as a bush-league city quite the way the MLK Library does. No doubt a few million dollars of renovations could spruce things up a bit. But really, why bother? The place just got push-button phones. How much better could it get?
If I were queen of D.C.—or, um, a nerdy mayor looking for an appropriate legacy—I would rally Buffy Cafritz, Bitsy Folger, and all their deep-pocketed friends to build a new library suitably grand to serve the colonial residents of the nation’s capital. I’d have them build a book-laden wonderland, with statues out front and fine art and cushy chairs inside, and a design that evoked the classics and lasted through the ages. It would be a splendiferous showplace for the library system’s few gems, most notably the prickly Washingtoniana Division librarian Matthew Gilmore, whom I would dip in the cryofreezer, to be thawed out in time to navigate historic maps in the new and improved library.
Washington, in fact, did have a nice central library once, at Mount Vernon Square. It was a Carnegie gem, with the requisite limestone, dramatic staircases, and uplifting thoughts about books chiseled in. But in 1971, the District traded those grand tectonics for the current hotbox that, even then, must have looked inspired by some bad ’50s sci-fi movie.
Designed by a humorless, authoritarian geezer whose last name means “miserable” in German, the MLK Library was a disaster from the very beginning. The library, in fact, is one of the last works commissioned from architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who died at age 83, less than a year after ground was broken on the building in 1968. But his input wasn’t critical; the library was basically a cheap knockoff of Mies’ New York Seagram’s building, minus the bronze and a few floors. From the outside, it might as well have been the new headquarters of the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council as a central library. Even last week, when the Downtown Business Improvement District set up the G Street ribbon-cutting festivities, it had to staple banners to the building so that the new G Street drivers could actually discern that it is a library.
In fact, it’s hard to imagine an architect less suited for designing a library for the people. The Miesian tradition isn’t exactly famous for its connection to the common man. It’s clear that Mies never anticipated that the MLK building’s most loyal customers would resemble the lady who was visiting one day last week wearing a purple garbage bag and clutching a silver purse overflowing with wire coat hangers. Or maybe he did—which could be why he designed the library to look as if it could easily be hosed down after the masses go home for the night.
Mies’ famous disregard for the messiness of human activity is also why, by the time the library trustees hired him, he was already highly unpopular. The year before groundbreaking on the MLK Library, public outrage in London prompted the city to revoke a building permit for an office building Mies had designed there because it would have forced people to step out in the street to walk around it. But the District, ever awed by a fancy foreigner with an artsy reputation, went ahead with its plans anyway.
Library trustee Phillip Pannell concurs that the library, as buildings go, is a mess and always has been, right down to its official name, which is missing the “Jr.” “It was the wrong architect, the wrong building, with the wrong name,” says Pannell.
The idea of a new central library isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem. Pannell says that at a recent retreat, the library trustees actually discussed the possibility of a new building. “We really need a bigger library,” he says, adding that MLK is so bad that renovating it just isn’t cost-effective. The trustees even have a place in mind: the site of the old convention center, a block north of MLK. Building a new library there would leave us twice blessed, by erasing two of the biggest blots on the downtown landscape and finally giving us a home-grown institution worth checking out. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Charles Steck.