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Three days after the country celebrated the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., the city’s historic preservation board will take up the question of his legacy in another way tomorrow, holding a hearing on the future of the central library that bears his name. But the more radical plans to overhaul and expand the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library building may be off the table due to preservation concerns.
A year ago, the city selected a team of the Dutch firm Mecanoo Architecten and D.C.-based Martinez & Johnson Architecture to design the next phase of the outdated 1972 building, originally conceived by famed modernist Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Renderings from the winning team showed a sleek new take on the building that preserved its core elements, but with a few substantial changes. Gone were the brick walls around the exterior and the hidden stairs inside, in favor of a more transparent and open design. A four-story addition—-a one-story curvaceous structure topped by three stories in the style of the Mies design—-sat atop the existing building, possibly for offices or other private uses (to the chagrin of the likes of Ralph Nader). A substantial food and retail component was added, including a bookstore/cafe, a “Mies restaurant,” and a “Mies cafe and roof garden.”
The various shout-outs to the building’s architect may not be enough to persuade the city’s preservation authorities that the designs are true to his intentions. In a Dec. 3 letter to the National Capital Planning Commission, the D.C. Historic Preservation Office (acting, under one of the many quirks of D.C.’s city-state hybrid status and federal oversight, as the State Historic Preservation Office) panned the more ambitious proposals for an MLK overhaul. In fact, State Historic Preservation Officer David Maloney wrote that all options (except the one to take no action) “would have an adverse effect on the building due to loss of historic fabric, alterations to public spaces and circulation patterns, and construction of a rooftop addition.” However, Maloney wrote, the less obtrusive designs, with just a one-story addition, might still be acceptable, although the library should aim for the smallest expansion possible, try to preserve the brick walls, and avoid “thinking of this project as an opportunity for transformative design.”
In its presentation to the Historic Preservation Review Board, which will hold tomorrow’s hearing, D.C. Public Library opted to submit just two proposals, neither with the three-story addition on top. “Here’s the thinking behind submitting the version without the three floors,” says DCPL spokesman George Williams. “HPRB is focusing on the historic elements of the building that need to be modified.” In other words, DCPL wanted this hearing to focus on modifications to the existing building. Incorporating feedback from HPRB, Williams says, DCPL will submit a final design in about 10 months that could include the extra three stories.
The two options HPRB will consider both include a one-story roof addition to create a fifth floor. The first option features a rectangular addition, while the second has the same curved addition that was displayed in the earlier renderings showing a three-story addition above.
Both options would enclose the loading dock behind the library on G Place NW, open up the back wall of the library’s main hall to expand the space, create a public seating area on G Place, bring the stairwells into the open, and create a roof deck.
HPRB will be guided in its ruling on the renovations, which is not expected to come tomorrow, by a staff report from the Historic Preservation Office, filed on Friday. (Because the library was designated a historic landmark in 2007, any substantial alterations require HPRB approval.) The report states that the proposed design “represents an excellent starting point for renovation of the library to meet its 21st-century program needs,” but it raises some concerns. By removing brick areas around the lobby and making them transparent, “the careful architectural balance between solid and void is disrupted right at the entrance to the building,” the report states. HPO also takes issue with the proposed removal of brick walls upstairs, intended to create a more open feel.
When it comes to the roof addition, the point of difference between the two options proposed, HPO worries that the curved design might be more visible from the street and concludes that the rectangular design is “a more successful—-and Miesian—-approach to an additional floor.”
Overall, the HPO report recommends that HPRB “provide further direction” to the architects on certain aspects of the project, but appears open to its general concept. If the additional three stories are proposed, on the other hand, everything could change.
“If this is presented later, the Board would have to evaluate whether such a prominent addition would be appropriate for a memorial building that is the work of an internationally celebrated architect,” the HPO report states. “The HPO knows of no other Mies building that has been altered in such a highly visible manner.”
Renderings courtesy of D.C. Public Library