When Mayor Anthony Williams took on the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library toward the end of his administration, he put forward several roadmaps for change. One solution (his administration’s favored solution) was to close the library, lease its signature building, and move the MLK memorial plaque to a new library in a mixed-use facility at the Old Convention Center site. The other solution was to paint it white.
There’s only one architectural flaw that can be solved either by abandoning the building or slapping a new coat of paint on it, and that’s aesthetic. While his administration made some noises about the building’s technical flaws, including the misleading claim that it couldn’t be wired for WiFi, make no mistake: The Mayor thought it was ugly.
I disagree. The only building in the District designed by Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe—in fact the only D.C. building designed by any one of the Big Three of Mies, Le Corbusier, and Frank Lloyd Wright—the MLK Library has always reminded me of the uniquely frustrating promise of the District. Here is the start of this soaring Mies skyscraper that stops before it starts, well short of the Seagram Building in New York or 860–880 Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. We get a Mies, but a Mies cut off at its knees. It’s a perfect architectural metaphor for the almost-urbanism that characterizes life in Washington. (Tastes differ, so if you prefer, insert the Frank Lloyd Wright development that Dupont Circle lost in 1940 due to the city’s height restriction.)
Mayor Williams was hardly alone in calling it ugly in 2006, but that was hardly fair, either. For a gentrifying set of Washingtonians, the MLK Library resembled, in the words of former Architect editor Brad McKee, “a holdout of the abandonment that defined Washington’s years under its former mayor, Marion Barry.” (Heavy disclaimer: McKee is a former City Paper arts editor and I am an editor at Architect.)
It wasn’t always so. For years after the library was established in 1972, it was praised in press accounts as a center for families and education. Then-director Hardy Franklin guided the D.C. Public Library system from a period of struggle in the 1970s through great expansion until the 1990s, when a perfect storm of financial and personal scandals threatened to unravel his many successes. The reputation of the MLK Library in press accounts tracks closely with the fate of the overall system.
So I was surprised to see my gracious host Lydia DePillis describe the building as “so unloved” in her story on the awesome new library expansions under D.C. Chief Librarian Ginnie Cooper. In fact, the MLK Library has not been so loved in many years. Cooper has begun to restore the grand vista of the library lobby—one of the great features of Mies’s design—to the nearly blockwide view that was for years obscured by clutter. The Mies-designed furniture I frankly thought long gone has found its way back to the lobby, too.
Of all people, Cooper understands the utility of compelling architecture, as the openings at Shaw and Tenleytown prove. There’s room for improvement at the downtown branch, and maybe even an overhaul. A fifth floor from Mies’s design was never completed. And the library too quickly set aside a design by Washington architect W. Kent Cooper to carve out a central, sky-lit atrium that would rise from the second to fifth floors. (Which would help to solve the poor lighting situation inside, which is horrible and not a problem specific to Mies’s design.) The renovation plan, commissioned by the American Institute of Architects and the library board of trustees, was abandoned in favor of the Williams administration’s plan to replace the library altogether. Now that a new library is off the table, it’s time to return to the sensible proposition: renovation. According to an estimate that the library construction director gave McKee at the time, renovating the library would cost $40 million more than building a new one would have—though CFO Natwar Gandhi said then that both projects would cost roughly the same.
But more than a renovation, even, the MLK Library needs city serves downtown to step up. It will never be an inviting place like Shaw or Tenleytown until the city does something to serve D.C.’s homeless population downtown. The library serves as a de facto shelter and has since before Armstrong v. District of Columbia Public Library. Mayor Williams was kidding himself to say that it was a lack of WiFi, and not an abundance of homeless men, keeping families away. The Gales School, slated for renovation and use as a shelter by Central Union Mission, will help in this regard. Never mind what it means for the library: D.C. needs shelters downtown, full stop.
Further, the MLK Library needs to improve on those services only a downtown library can provide. I’ve witnessed attendance in the Black Studies and Washingtoniana rooms grow over the last few years. The college resource center gets its share of visitors, too—but it ought to be one of the library system’s most popular destinations. High-speed computers, college application experts, essay tutors, and qualified high-school guidance counselors are not something every D.C. public school or charter school boasts. One excelsior college resource center downtown could serve as a backstop for many schools without resources.
With the Shaw and Tenleytown libraries, Cooper has drawn on the transformative power of architecture to draw new and old users. With the Mies downtown, she has her work cut out for her: Simply by undoing decades of neglect she’ll get a transformative building back.