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MLK Library 3-Year Reconstruction Project Starts with March 4th Closing; Final Plans Reveal Details

Accompanying images can be viewed in the Febuary 2017 issue pdf

By Matthew B. Gilmore*

DC Public Library Executive Director Richard Reyes-Gavilan announced that the historic Meis van der Rohe-designed landmark Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library building will close on March 4th for a complete modernization. Final renderings and floor plans (substantially unchanged since the previous announcements last November) were shown at a February 2nd public meeting.

Construction is slated to begin in earnest in the summer, following a few months needed to remove all of the collections either to storage or temporary distribution to branch libraries or special locations (everything else to storage — furnishings, equipment, etc.), and will continue well into 2020.

Impacts of the reconstruction are somewhat contradictory, a position forced on the library by the structure’s  historic designation. The exterior will remain much the same, although with additional glass replacing brick at the main entrance. A café space is planned for the building’s rear corner at 9th Street and G Place.

Current uses (“program”) of the building will be reshuffled. A variety of new non-traditional library uses will be inserted into the layout and function of the building, including a large auditorium and conference center; “maker spaces” — creative spaces for fabrication, music production and art creation; and a rooftop event space with terrace. Traditional library functions will be housed in a new children’s section, a new main third floor reading room, and a fourth floor primarily (but not exclusively) devoted to Washingtoniana and Special Collections.

The guiding principles informing the placement of functions in the building can be summarized as follows: public spaces to be on the lower floors with staff on upper floors; noise levels to decrease as one goes higher in the building; more public functions to be closer to 9th Street; community and assembly spaces to be in the center of the building.

Hopes are that the reconstruction of the library will encourage much more use and will enliven the now-somnolent nightlife of the several blocks of the downtown area west of 9th Street.

Interim supplementary/replacement services will be dispersed and scattered. Neighborhood libraries, which are currently closed on Thursday mornings, will add hours and will open two-and-a-half hours earlier, at 9:30 a.m. A small public facility called “Library Express” will be an adjunct to library administrative functions at 1990 K Street, NW. It will include the Adult Literacy Resource Center and Center for Accessibility as well as provide a small browsing collection of books and public access computers.

As noted above, materials formerly housed at MLK will be to be made available in new, temporary locations.

Special Collections, including some parts of the Washingtoniana collections, will be available by advance appointment only at the Historical Society of Washington’s Kiplinger Research Library, the Georgetown Library’s Peabody Room, and the Library of Congress.

Plans for relocation of most of “The Labs,” which include the Fabrication, Memory and Studio labs have not yet been made. The Memory Lab will be located to the Northeast Branch Library at 330 7th Street, NE. Neighborhood libraries will get additional computers to accommodate increased usage. Most reference and general circulating books in good condition housed only at MLK and not otherwise available at the branches will be available at the District¹s neighborhood libraries.

Two branch libraries, Capitol View and Palisades will be closing in February for renovation and are expected to re-open before the end of the year, as will the new West End branch.

The MLK Library project has been reviewed by the National Capital Planning Commission, the DC Historic Preservation Review Board and the Commission of Fine Arts. LEED Gold certification is a goal. Asbestos mitigation may or may not be an issue given that a mitigation project was undertaken back in the 1990s.

To inaugurate the closing process, on March 1st the library will screen the documentary film “A legacy of Mies and King.” This film follows architect Francine Houben, creative director of Mecanoo Architecten, as she contemplated how to redesign the library while looking into archival material, interviewing contemporaries of Mies and King, as well as current library visitors, and participating in the District’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day parade.

And, even though the library will be closing its doors for service on March 4th, it will briefly reopen for some special events, such as on March 16th for the DC Public Library Foundation’s annual Story Time Gala reception. The final event to be held there will be the March 24th concert by the Morehouse College Glee Club, with a program including spirituals, gospel and Yoruba selections. Morehouse, Dr. King¹s alma mater, is the country’s only all-male historically Black institution of higher learning.

The public are encouraged to contribute their own memories of the (existing) library at by visiting the library website’s “Sharing Your Memories” page.

[Editor’s Note: For our most recent previous report on this long-running story (since 2006), see “MLK Library Reconstruction Design Concepts Supported by Fine Arts Commission and HPRB” (August 2015 issue PDF, page 1). For our news stories going back to 2012, all found on page 1 of the issue PDFs referenced, see the following: “Long-Awaited Reconstruction of MLK, Jr. Central Library Project Ready for Design Concept Approval by DC and Federal Boards” (July 2015); “Renovated MLK Central Library to be for Library Purpose Only, Trustees Nix Plan Calling for Extra Commercial Use Floors” (February 2015); “MLK Library Space Needs Now Stated as Requiring 100% of Existing Building, Possible Rooftop Structure Under Review” (November 2014); “MLK Library Reconstruction Planning Now Moving Forward, Funding Issues to Delay” (June 2014); “DC Library Trustees Select Architectural Team for the Long-Awaited Reconstruction of MLK Central Library at Gallery Place” (March 2014); “Disposition or Retention of MLK Main Library Building Subject of In-Depth Report to Guide DC Library Trustees” (March 2012). All these news stories contain helpful accompanying photos and architects’ design renderings depicting various proposed ideas.]

*The writer is the editor of the H-DC discussion list and blogs on Washington history and related subjects at matthewbgilmore.wordpress.com. Previously, he was a reference librarian at the Washingtoniana Division of the DC Public Library for a number of years and chaired the Annual Conference on DC Historical Studies for four years.