City Names Mies Library a Landmark

Reading Room, Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library

As several commenters noted on my recent post about the apparent demise of plans to build a new central public library, that building has recently been declared a historic landmark by the city and filed an application for listing on the federal register. The Historic Preservation Review Board staff report and the accompanying National Register nomination form, prepared by staff members Kimberly Prothro Williams and Anne Brockett, provides a well researched statement about the building’s early history and explanation of the architectural significance. Here’s an excerpt of the staff report:

The Martin Luther King Memorial Library building is an International-style four-story above-ground steel and glass structure. … The exterior of steel verticals and horizontals spanned by rhythmic expanses of plate glass follows a precise and ordered design aesthetic that Mies followed throughout his career. The ground floor loggia recessed under the column supported upper stories—a device Mies first used at his 1949 Promontory Apartments in Chicago … is a dominant feature of his D.C. library building. The recessed loggia not only reduces the building’s mass, but it also serves to visually draw people into the building, a stated desire in the library building program. Similarly, the granite lobby paving which extends outside the building to the street curb—a design element Mies first employed at the Apartments at 860-880 Lake Shore Drive (1949-1951)—and the juxtaposition of clear glass on the first floor and bronze-tinted glass on the upper floors, were implemented to integrate the exterior and interior of the building and to welcome the passer-by. At the time of the building’s opening in 1972, newspaper commentary clearly recognized the effect: “…from outside the library, the glass walls reveal bookshelves that permit one to view titles of books—titles which seem to beckon. Inside one feels at home, and not isolated from the outside world.”

Regardless of whether it remains a library, the designation will require city approval for any changes to the exterior, lobby, and first floor reading rooms (one is pictured above). Here are the two reports, courtesy the Historic Preservation Office:

> MLK Memorial Library Staff Report (PDF)
> MLK Memorial Library National Register Form (PDF)

And news stories:
> CityPaper City Desk Blog: “MLK Finally Declared Historic
> Christian Science Monitor: “A new endangered species: Modern architecture

Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. If I ran the DCPL system I would turn the Mies library into a research library rather than a lending library, get the Washington Historical Society to move there from the Carnegie Library, and then turn the Carnegie Library back into a branch library for the downtown/Convention Center neighborhood.

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