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What Once Was

The Future of Carnegie Library: What Might Be

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By Stephen A. Hansen*

The Carnegie Library, located in Mount Vernon Square, is an architectural grand dame that belongs to the city, but now is the target of a public-private joint venture that would have a dramatic effect on the building as well as the public square in which it sits.

Because the project has the blessing of a federal agency, the mayor and the director of the DC Office of Planning, it may be pushed through the approval process quickly and more easily than similar projects that have had to undergo a rather stringent federal review process. (The Old Post Office’s conversion to a Trump hotel and the privatization of Walter Reed Army Medical Center are a couple of examples.)

South entrance to the Carnegie Library building.  photo—Wikimedia Commons.

South entrance to the Carnegie Library building. photo—Wikimedia Commons.

Mount Vernon Square, where the library is located, is one of 15 public reservations included in Peter Charles L’Enfant’s 1791 plan for the District of Columbia. It is a federal property and under the auspices of the National Park Service.

In 1899, Andrew Carnegie contributed a total of $375,000 for a public library building for the city. The Beaux Arts-style buiding was completed in 1902, and in January 1903 the Washington Public Library was dedicated. The library is included on the National Register of Historic Places and the DC Inventory of Historic Sites (as the Central Public Library).

Since 1970 when the public library was moved to the Mies van der Rohe-designed new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library building at 9th and G Streets, NW, the Carnegie Library building has unfortunately become somewhat of an orphan. In 1980, the building became part of the University of the District of Columbia.

In 1999, the building was slated to become the home of a new city museum and the Historical Society of Washington. The museum raised $20 million, most of which was spent on the restoration of the building. Congress appropriated an additional $2 million to complete the work on the building, with a provision that the District of Columbia lease the Carnegie Library to the Historical Society for 99 years at one dollar per year. The City Museum of Washington’s doors opened in 2003 and then closed in 2004, but Carnegie continues to be the Society’s home.

Events DC — the official convention and sports authority for DC — took over management of the building from the Historical Society in 2011, as well as the one dollar per year lease that has 86 years remaining. The Society and its Kiplinger Research Library has remained in the building and Events DC has been using and leasing out the rest of the space.

Now, the Spy Museum, privately owned by the Cleveland-based Malrite Company, has entered into a joint venture with Events DC and is looking to convert itself to a not-for-profit organization and to relocate its collections to the Carnegie Library. The owner of the Spy Museum, 84-year-old Milton Maltz, says he wants to “give it to the community.”

The library was not selected because it meets the expanding space needs of the Spy Museum; other larger locations were also considered. The venture is proposing to add a 58,000 square-foot glass addition on the north side of the building to accommodate retail and café space, as well as create a new city visitor center. 40,000 square feet of the addition would be underground. The Historical Society would stay in building but be moved to the basement. The venture partners hope to break ground on the project as early as January 2015.

Rendering of the view of the proposed addition from the Convention Center and along New York Avenue.  photo—National Capital Planning Commission.

Rendering of the view of the proposed addition from the Convention Center and along New York Avenue. photo—National Capital Planning Commission.

The total estimated cost for all of this is $70 to $75 million. While details on any financial structure are still to be determined, one plan is that the museum would be funded with an endowment, private fundraising, and visitor revenues. But this would appear to be an unlikely model to earn back the initial costs of the venture.

Birdseye  rendering of the addition to Carnegie Library.  image—National Capital Planning Commission.

Birdseye rendering of the addition to Carnegie Library. image—National Capital Planning Commission.

Much attention by the architects has emphasized preserving the south side of the building and treating the north side as more utilitarian and therefore suitable for an addition. But for a free-standing, architecturally detailed building such as this, all sides contribute to its historic character.

On an architectural history note, although the south side of the building is the grand entrance, the vertical slot-like windows on the north side were somewhat of a revolutionary new “green” design feature in 1899 that allowed natural sunlight in-between the rows of vertical stacks, therefore reducing the need for electric lights at all times. The proposed addition that would wrap around the building’s north, east, and west sides would obscure any view of the original building from multiple vantage points.

North entrance across from Convention Center showing the unique vertical windows to provide sunlight into the stacks.  photo—Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

North entrance across from Convention Center showing the unique vertical windows to provide sunlight into the stacks. photo—Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The use of glass as the main building material —- intended to allow visibility through to the original building —- presents many problems. Although the glass would be transparent, the contents inside the addition would not be —  e.g., service areas, stairwells, and furnishings. Furthermore, glass is a highly reflective and high maintenance material and could obscure the visibility of the original building at certain times of the day, and if it is not kept constantly clean.

Mount Vernon Square is part of the original L’Enfant Plan for the city of Washington (which would be modified by this project), and is owned the National Park Service. Therefore, any modifications to this site are subject to a review process by an agency of the federal government, which in the case of this project is the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC).

Rendering of the north elevation of the proposed addition to Carnegie Library. image—National Capital Planning Commission.

Rendering of the north elevation of the proposed addition to Carnegie Library. image—National Capital Planning Commission.

Part of this federal review process allows for the opportunity for public involvement and comment, as any federal resources affected by such a project belong to all the people. But to date, this opportunity has been quite limited —- one NCPC meeting, posted only two days in advance and advertised as a scoping meeting of potential project-related environmental issues (required under the National Environmental Policy Act). But rather than a discussion of any environment issues, the proposed architectural designs were instead presented to the small number of people who were able to attend on such short notice. Public comments were then invited for environmental issues for a period of 30 days. To date, NCPC has yet to announce a meeting to specifically discuss the effects of this undertaking on the library building and surrounding historic properties.

NCPC, which should remain an impartial party as the lead review agency, has already opined on the project. As recently reported in the Northwest Current, the commission’s chair, L. Preston Bryant, has called it an “extraordinary project, great for the District,” so any future review steps may be just pro forma.

The day after the NCPC environmental meeting, Events DC itself took the project to the federal Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) as an informational presentation. As this was outside the structure of the official historic preservation review process and the auspices of NCPC, NCPC apparently did not see a need to publicize it. While the CFA approved of the concept of repurposing Carnegie Library by adding an addition, it took issue with the design as presented, which included a concern about the expressiveness of the addition in relation to the building (stylistic incompatibility), that the use of so much glass might contrast too strongly with the existing masonry (material incompatibility), and the visibility of the walls, furnishings, and merchandise within the interior spaces.

It is questionable how much the community itself would benefit from this “gift” and how it will assure public use of this building and space. The Spy Museum would essentially have the space for free under the one dollar per year lease agreement, and Events DC would certainly benefit by having the Spy Museum directly across the street from its other venue, the Convention Center. Adding onto the library as proposed would result in a loss of 18,000 square of public space with the creation of new retail space that would be necessary to support the Spy Museum.

The concept of another city museum is attractive, but may just be sugar coating to help the public swallow the project. Will yet another attempt at a city museum work this time, and in the same location as where the last one failed? And who would benefit from the millions of dollars of public funds and private funds already invested in the restoration of Carnegie Library?

While the project is being promoted as a “gift” to the community, it may be that the community is actually the one giving a large gift to the Spy Museum and Events DC. And with the early, overt support of the National Capital Planning Commission and the mayor’s office, this project may well be a fait accompli, greased to quickly push it through all the necessary approvals needed to break ground in January 2015.

*Stephen A. Hansen is an historic preservation specialist, Washington DC historian, author of several books and of the Virtual Architectural Archaeology blog.

© 2014 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Stephen A. Hansen. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part, including for commercial purposes, without permission is prohibited.

 

 

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