What Will be the Fate of Washington’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library?

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial LibraryThe future of Washington’s downtown Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library hangs in the balance. A bill now pending before the DC Council’s Committee on Education, Libraries and Recreation proposes to construct a new central library on the old convention center site, and lease the old structure as office space to help pick up the tab. Although the bill is supported both by outgoing Mayor Williams and incoming Mayor Fenty, the matter is far from settled. A variety of DC Councilmembers have voiced skepticism about the plan and preservationists are holding out hope the building can be refurbished as a library. Like all good public debates, the future of the library is a complex tangle of disparate issues.

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial LibraryThe structure was designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, widely recognized a master of modern architecture. The library is the only example of his architecture in Washington, and critics laud its minimalist simplicity and elegant dimensions. The city’s Historic Preservation Review Board is sitting on a landmark application that would protect the structure, awaiting a decision by city leaders about its future. Several previous plans to expand and refurbish the building have been promoted and discussed, but the mayor is committed to a new library. And the mayor seems overly confident he can make millions renting a run-down old library.

After a flurry of coverage related to the library last spring and summer, the issue has slipped into the background somewhat. With a new mayor elected things seem to be moving again. The Committee on Education, Libraries, and Recreation will hold a mark- up session on the Mayor’s proposal, which is
Bill 16-734, the Library Transformation Act of 2006, on November 21 at 3 p.m. Room 123 of the John A. Wilson Building. I thought now would be the perfect time to post some historical information on the structure I’ve collected. All of the historical images are courtesy of the DCPL Collection, DC Community Archives, Washingtoniana Division, DC Public Library. The Washingtoniana Division is one of my favorite parts of the library, and the staff very helpful.

Timeline of Early History of the Library

1960 – DC government requests federal funds to study question of improving the public library

July 1961 – Report by consulting company Booze, Allen and Hamilton published, argues Carnegie library obsolete and a new structure needed. Library Board of Trustees subsequently identifies and purchases site at 9th and G streets.

September 23, 1965 – Mies selected as architect for the new building by a five-man panel, apparently appointed by the city. It is reported at the time that as many as 30 architects expressed interest in the project.

February 15, 1966 – Design approved by Fine Arts Commission

July 31, 1968 – Groundbreaking ceremony held

August 17, 1969 – Mies van der Rohe dies at age 83

January 14, 1971 – D.C. library board of trustees votes to name the new library after Dr. King after receiving dozens of letters and petitions

August 21, 1972 – Library opens

September 17, 1972 – Building dedicated

January 1975 – Bust of Dr. King by artist Jacob Stein presented to the library by Mrs. Ruth Resnick, widow of Congressman Joseph Resnick of New York

March 29, 1976 – FCC commissioner Benjamin L. Hooks reads King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” as part of “Memphis Revisited” event

June 27, 1976 – Library forced to close early due to excessive heat after both of building’s A/C units break. The Washington Post reports temperatures reach 94 degrees in the library.

November 4, 1976 – Library forced to close early due to a lack of heat while steam valve is re-located

September 28, 1982 – Library celebrates its 10th anniversary, ribbon-cutting held for Washington Star collection

January 20, 1986 – Library unveils mural by artist Don Miller depicting the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the date of King’s first national holiday

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Above: DC mayor Walter Washington speaks at groundbreaking in 1968, library under construction in 1968 or 1969, the public observes construction in undated photo, library nears completion. All photos courtesy DCPL Collection, DC Community Archives, Washingtoniana Division, DC Public Library

The records I examined leave the selection of Mies as the project’s architect as something of a mystery. The decision was apparently made by a small group of officials in the newly-constituted District government. The Fine Arts Commission hearing seems to indicate the members had already been extensively briefed about the project as the actual meeting was extremely brief and the members praised the design. Mies was provided a number of documents by city officials describing in general the functionality they needed. He made several changes from the basic program provided by city leaders: moved a proposed parking lot under the building to allow the building to cover the entire lot, added a recessed ground floor, and designed the library with an open floor plan. The furnishings were originally selected through extensive consultation with representatives of Mies’ company and included furniture of his design for the lobby. In the photos I found a series that must have been taken shortly after the building was opened and show the Mies furniture and other original interior decoration.

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Above: main lobby of library, first floor reading room, and public lobby. All photos courtesy DCPL Collection, DC Community Archives, Washingtoniana Division, DC Public Library

Relationship to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The building has had a long connection with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. After King’s assassination in 1968, the Library Board was inundated by grassroots pressure asking they name the new library after the leader. At a tense meeting where the board’s three black members voted for it while the two whites voted against, the Library Board selected the new name. The library has a variety of artwork related to Dr. King including a bust presented in 1975, a large mural installed in 1986, and other paintings and drawings. The library’s longtime director, Hardy Franklin, was a personal friend of Dr. King and commissioned the lobby mural from artist Don Miller. The library’s archives contain numerous programs for events held in Dr. King’s memory. The building’s collections contain a large amount of material related to King in its general holdings as well as in its Black Studies Division, which was founded at the new library building’s opening in 1972.

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Workers install The King Mural in the library lobby in 1986. Photo courtesy DCPL Collection, DC Community Archives, Washingtoniana Division, DC Public Library

Mechanical Systems
Library officials have long complained of problems with the building’s heating and air conditioning systems. The large amount of glass in the building’s design result in extreme temperatures if the equipment fails in summer or winter. The building’s original design included
pneumatic tubes, dumb waiters, and a conveyor belt system, none of which have worked in years according to library staff.

When it opened in 1972 a plaza was constructed on G Street in front of the library. (Visible in this photo I found.) During the 1980s the plaza fell into disrepair and neglect. I believe it was finally removed in the early 1990s. Flickr user Raymond Fudge posted this photo of the plaza in 1977:

What Of the Library?
In recent months, much has been written about the library building and the associated debate about the future of the entire library system. City officials hope the library’s new director, Ginnie Cooper, will be able to lead a “transformation” of the system desired by Mayor William’s Library Task Force. Since her arrival the library has instituted free WiFi, opened branch locations on Sundays, and a long-promised bookmobile has appeared in my neighborhood Shaw to replace the library which closed two years ago. (Library officials also recently constructed a fence around the derelict structure.) The library staff desperately want a new library: their materials are endangered by the inadequate ventilation and sunlight. Meanwhile, preservationists are obsessing about the legacy of an architect most American’s have never heard of, defending the largely inaccessible and widely disliked architectural style of modernism. Many of the people who have power to make things happen in the city aren’t invested in the structure, as they have Amazon.com, Politics and Prose, the Georgetown Branch, or the Library of Congress. The library’s director from 1975 until 1997 who could speak to both the needs of the library and the history of the building passed away in 2004.

Despite the challenges, I believe there is hope yet for both the library and downtown building. The challenge lies in connecting Washington’s well developed preservation community with the library’s users and advocates. This sort of alliance would require the preservationists to look beyond the architecture and see the building as the physical home of a vital community institution. It would also require disgruntled library users and employees to see the tremendous power of retaining and enhancing a landmark structure. As I see it, the missing link in all this is not the people, ideas, or even resources, but instead the leadership to bridge divides and inspire a strong shared vision for both the library and building.

Read More

11/06 – InTowner: “Mayor’s Plan for New Central Library … Appears Close to Possible Decision in November” (Download PDF)
10/28/06 – W. Post: “Library Chief Pushes for New Building
6/16/06 – W. Post: “Mayor Braves the Mies Mystique
6/15/06 – W. Post: “Through Glass Darkly: D.C.’s Poor Vision for Library
6/13/06 – W. Post op-ed by Mayor Williams: “Why D.C. Needs a New Library
4/23/06 – W. Post: “Renovation Futile, Leaders Say
4/06 – Kriston Capps: “‘ ‘For once in a public building in Washington, there is excellence throughout.’ ” (4/18/06), “Stranger in the Mies,” (4/21/06)
4/21/06 – DCist: “Meeting on the Fate of the MLK Library
3/16/06 – W. Post: “Outdated Eyesore or Modern Masterpiece?
1/18/06 – W. Post: “Overhaul Urged for D.C. Libraries

DC Preservation League names library “most endangered” in 2004
DC Public Library System
DC Library Renaissance Project

Author: Rob Goodspeed


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  2. This was a very informative and interesting entry. I am definitely going to follow this much closer now that I know more about the history attached to the library.

  3. its a horribly gloomy library. i visited it once. in theory the towering ceilings and copious window are should make this a bright and open space, but it misses the mark. that said, i think a serious remodeling job could improve it. im sure this archeture seemed very “different” and “innovative” in the 1970s, but in that era ugly often signified new. and with all respect to dr king, it is ugly. tear it down and bulldoze it away.

  4. As a chicagoan, I love miesian buildings. The beauty is also in his carefully chosen details. This is high modernism and its a direct descendent of formal beaux arts structures. It’s a building about form and structure and materials. Mies was from the old guard. In the PoMo era — the street and the vernacular have risen up to influence design of buildings — and our tastes (well some, I hate most historical looking buildings with a passion) have changed so that public buildings increasing reflect the taste of the public over that of the formally trained. This is a beautiful building and it should be preserved. I remember the plaza back in the early 1990s. There was one in front of the Portrait Gallery as well, both were torn out when the basketball stadium was built and the once downtown arts community was replaced by a tourist playground.

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