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MLK Library Reconstruction Planning Now Moving Forward; Funding Issues to Delay

Accompanying images can be viewed in the June 2014 issue PDF

By Anthony L. Harvey

In a well attended May 19th meeting of the Friends of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Library, Francine Houban, founder and creative director of the Netherlands-based Mecanoo Architecten, and winner, with its partnering firm, Washington, DC’s Martinez+Johnson Architecture, electrified a Library conference room audience with a dazzling set of projections and commentary for the dramatic “do-over” of the early 1970s Mies van der Rohe’s starkly modernistic, historic landmark building at 9th and G Streets, NW.

Their conceptual design strips away brick partition walls on the front and northeast sides of the building — walls which were not part of Mies’ original design that specified, and pictured, visually impervious glass curtain walls on the building’s exterior. Also proposed is the removal of non-load bearing interior walls on the second, third, and fourth floors, along with conceptually created transparent cores which would flood each level with natural light. The lower levels would be visually opened up from the front of the building, with descending stairways adding additional access to those spaces.

The first floor Great Hall, the one part of the building with an interior landmark designation, would be recast as a “market hall” — a welcoming public space for a destination public building with an events area containing its own set of colorful activities and providing visual openings onto on-going library and library related activities.

The G Street overhang and entrance, which now awkwardly leads visitors into the Great Hall through a foyer-like lobby, would be transformed into a lively internet café and coffee shop. Visually arresting signage and smart board messaging would immediately inform visitors and patrons of library services together with schedules for meetings and special events and with graphics that would prepare one for a journey through the Library.

The recast building would become a further “see-through structure,” as Mies originally intended, by removing the wall-enclosed rooms at the rear of the first floor, giving a clear line of sight to the G Place north side of the building, whereupon the architects could explore with the neighboring Congregational Church to the west  the possibility of re-directing and burying major parts of the ramps presently leading to the library’s below grade parking levels. This would allow for an outdoor plaza area — including (perhaps) a garden or children’s play area. (Mies’ original plans envisioned the library building being surrounded by an inviting plaza that would highlight the prominence of such an important civic structure.

Other important concepts in the presentation included the provision of staffed information counters in the Great Hall’s market space that would assist those with questions and special needs.

The building’s fourth floor would be redesigned to highlight the library’s special collections such as “Black Studies” and the highly regarded Washingtoniana Division, together with a multi-purpose lecture hall and a prominent space for a center memorializing Martin Luther King, Jr., with (perhaps) activities and events of its own.

A new fifth level would create a rooftop garden terrace with spectacular views of historic Washington with a small coffee shop/café, all this in an innovative, adaptive re-use of a presently unsustainable — both in energy and maintenance costs — landmark building, one now being conceptually recast to be more in keeping with its original design.

Other levels of the building would continue to provide traditional reading room spaces for adults and children, and for other needs, such as providing information technology systems and on-line data access as well as literacy programs and the library’s award-winning adaptive services division. Additional community meeting rooms, separate study rooms, and privacy spaces for literacy tutoring would also be provided. Finally, the visually opened-up front of the building’s lower level could conceivably be a new home for a teen center and that of an innovation information incubator.

Left unresolved, however, is the question of whether or not there will be two new floors added to the building for an unspecified purpose, quite possibly for income-generating commercial office use. Other than providing a conceptual design of an “elegant beam with solid ends to be angled diagonally atop — and without competing with — the original Mies van der Rohe building,” the architects responded that they are simply working on the adaptation of the existing structure for a vibrant new Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Library building, leaving the question of the possible additional floors to the political process.

Prior to Houban’s presentation, the library system’s newly appointed director, Richard Reyes-Gavilan, spoke to the Friends group and answered questions regarding the recently announced capital budget in the Mayor’s current budget submission to the City Council. Due to “debt cap restraints,” he responded, the availability of capital spending for renovation and construction has been moved forward by two years; Reyes-Gavilan expressed the hope that this could be reversed when the new five-year budget cycle planning is conducted by the Mayor and City Council during 2015.

Editor’s Note: Earlier this year we reported on the proposals submitted by the competing finalist architectural firms. See, “DC Library Trustees Select Architectural Team for the Long-Awaited Reconstruction of MLK Central Library at Gallery Place,” InTowner, March 2014 issue PDF page 1; And for background on this long-running story (since 2006),see “Disposition or Retention of MLK Main Library Building Subject of In-Depth Report to Guide DC Library Trustees,” InTowner, March 2012 issue PDF page 1;