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Long-Awaited Reconstruction of MLK, Jr. Central Library Project Ready for Design Concept Approval by DC and Federal Boards

To view a selection of images showing architects’ envisioned changes, click here

By Anthony L. Harvey

After years of feints and false starts on library planning proposals by the Board of Trustees of the DC Public Library (DCPL), the DC City Council and the Office of the Mayor fleshed out architectural plans for the rehabilitation and recasting of the minimally maintained Mies van der Rohe-designed mid-century modernist central library building named in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the first memorial to Dr. King in Washington.

These plans are now nearing approval by the three major local and federal authorizing bodies and commissions having jurisdiction over the historic landmarked, downtown library building. Hearings have been scheduled, according to George Williams, Director of Media Relations in the Office of the DC Public Library’s Executive Director Richard Reyes-Gavilan, by the National Capital Planning Commission for Tuesday, July 14 at 1:30 pm; for Thursday, July 16 by the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts; for and Thursday, July 23 by the DC Historic Preservation Review Board — the latter two hearings at times to be announced by these agencies during the week of July 13th.

Initial plans unveiled last fall by DCPL and the architectural firms designing the proposed adaptive re-use of the building, the only library ever constructed from a Mies van der Rohe design, electrified the community of library activists and users who have followed the peregrinations of this lengthy and somewhat tortured planning process with the dramatic expressions in the plans of light, transparency, ease of access, and the provision of expanded space for additional library services, new artistic performances, and related community meetings and activities together with the potential for a rooftop addition complete with a publicly accessible terrace.

History and Background

This planning process began in the 1990s with an innovative proposal by architect Kent Cooper to carve out a central atrium in the Mies building reaching upward to a new, sky lit fifth floor which, although much admired, went nowhere. Then there followed by action of the Mayor Williams administration which proposed throwing the building, at that time unprotected by historic designation, onto the tender mercy of the commercial real estate market and replacing the functions of the Mies-designed library building with several floors of shoe-horned space in a mixed-use commercial building designed for construction on the corner of 11th Street and New York Avenue within the site for the redevelopment of the old Washington Convention Center.

Fortunately the Mies building, the world famous architect’s only designed structure in Washington with its strategic location at 9th and G Streets, NW at the intersection of multiple subway and bus lines, was saved, subsequently historic landmarked, and then designated for redevelopment as a 21st century state-of-the-art library.

Redevelopment, however, was deferred until such time as the woefully neglected branch libraries were rebuilt or rehabilitated. This entailed bringing the library system literally back from the dead — or at least back from the dying. This having been masterfully completed under the direction of the library trustees and then Chief Librarian Ginnie Cooper, the trustees, in consultation with the Mayor and the DC Council and with the engagement and support of the community, restarted the central library planning process.

A beautifully envisioned and lushly illustrated architectural rendering created on commission from DCPL by Freelon Group Architects gave new life to the prospects of a successful adaptive re-use of the Mies building. This was followed with further forward-looking action by the trustees, including the their selection of a seasoned library administrator from New York City with experience in executive positions at The New York Public Library and the Brooklyn Public Library who expressed an eagerness to take on the challenge of the resurrection of the MLK, Jr. Library into a state-of-the-art library.

Now fully committed to moving the project along, following a world-wide competition the trustees awarded the architectural commissions for the adaptive re-use of the Mies building to the acclaimed Mecanoo Architects of Delft, The Netherlands, partnering with the award-winning Washington architectural firm of Martinez and Johnson — thus providing the design brilliance of Mecanoo coupled with that of the Washington historic preservation prowess and architectural sensitivity of Martinez and Johnson.

Design and Interior Changes Revealed

Finally this Spring –- May, 2015 — the trustees and the library administration, in close collaboration with its architects, adopted a draft building program which, following review by the library’s advisory committee, was released in June to the general public and posted on the Library’s website. Library Director Reyes-Gavilan presented this program to Washingtonians at a well-attended public presentation hosted by the National Building Museum on June 18th with an engaging PowerPoint slide show containing the latest proposed architectural designs in which to house this new program.

Assisted by the library’s architects, Reyes-Gavilan summarized the important background of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library as Washington’s strategically located central library and emphasized the design plans for the rehabilitation and expansion of the building focusing on transparency and light — fundamental Miesian design objectives.

He described what will be a welcoming engagement and activation of the building, beginning with a grand opening of the main entrance at the first floor front to be achieved by the removal of blank brick side walls of the building’s vestibule entranceway; followed by the immediate provision of visually dramatic, open stairways leading to upper and lower levels of the building; continuing with a clear visual path to a new meeting and performance space replacing the existing loading dock area at the building’s rear facing on G Place, NW by removing the Great Hall’s extensive brick wall below the large, iconic Martin Luther King, Jr. mural; and the provision of a coffee shop and information center in the refurbished, already interior landmarked Great Hall.

These new interior building designs would also provide new and expanded inclusive spaces for vulnerable populations; co-working and collaborative spaces for students and start-ups; innovative spaces for artists, technologists and students, including a music studio; the creation of a grand reading room with enhanced capabilities for readers and researchers; a reversing of the placement of book stacks and patron seating in the large, specialized reading rooms in the east and west wings of the building; hands-on learning spaces for children and teenagers; the inclusion of an advanced IT workshop as part of the DCPL’s program of breaching the digital divide with its innovative Digital Commons; the creation of a large fourth floor auditorium dramatically opening up into the fifth floor where there will be additional, flexible use spaces for exhibitions and meetings; and all this topped off with a public rooftop terrace and an adjacent café.

Reyes-Gavilan’s animated presentation was richly informative in its provision of detail, floor by floor, of the envisioned aggressively active use of the building’s expanded and enhanced spaces — created, he emphasized, both by maximizing the effective use of existing spaces and incorporating newly opened-up space — plus, of course, the additional area provided by the proposed new fifth floor. Reyes-Gavilan also announced that DCPL and its architects were moving forward with the finalization of images for this new and revised vision — and version — of this proposal for Washington’s 21st century central library building program.

Lively discussion ensued following this presentation — and by attendees after it — with questions and discussions led by such ideas as a proposed MLK Memorial Library Center for the Study of Washington, DC, in collaboration with such partners as the Historical Society of Washington DC, scholarly activities relating to the legacy of Dr. King that might include an endowed King scholar and an annual book publishing program, an ambitious roof garden as part of the new 5th floor, the Library’s intention to create a sustainable, LEED Silver MLK building, among other ideas.

The latest plans and images for the modernization of the Martin Luther King Memorial Library will be unveiled at July appearances by the Library and its architects before the National Capital Planning Commission on the 14th, the Fine Arts Commission on the 16th, and the Historic Preservation Review Board on the 23rd — this last of three hearings being webcast for those not in attendance.

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