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MLK Library Reconstruction Design Concepts Supported by Fine Arts Commission and HPRB

Accompanying images can be viewed in the August 2015 issue PDF

By Anthony L. Harvey

When the history of the planning and design process for the adaptive re-use of the historic landmark Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Library building — Meis van der Rohe’s only library building and his only constructed structure in Washington, DC — is written, the summer of 2015 will be highlighted as the season during which the re-imagining of the 43-year-old central library building into a state of the art library that will last into the future coalesced into a coherent, comprehensive architectural and programmatic vision.

In a series of presentations by principals of the DC Public Library’s two architectural firms selected to design the project, Francine Houben of Mecanoo Architecten in Delft, Holland and Tom Johnson of Washington, DC’s Martinez+Johnson along with the library system’s (DCPL) Executive Director Richard Reyes-Gavilan, the library’s building program, its plan for the transformation of the existing building into a 21st century library and cultural center — a downtown destination building — and its strategy for maintaining and further celebrating the legacy of Dr. King and the iconic Mies van der Rohe building itself were woven into a comprehensive tapestry of eloquent words, ingenious plans and drawings, striking images, and compelling architectural renderings.

These were conducted in bravura illustrated presentations for the public at the National Building Museum and in testimony before the relevant government entities required to approve plans — the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), the District’s Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB), and the federal Commission of Fine Arts (CFA).

The National Building Museum presentation, co-sponsored by DCPL, was informational; the NCPC session was for a mid-level staff meeting related to the federal Section 106 historic preservation review process (a very technical bureaucratic process), with the HPRB and CFA presentations being dramatic public hearings where DCPL was seeking approval of its formal plans for this adaptive re-use of the MLK Memorial Library building from these two regulatory bodies — and it’s these last two events that are the subject of this article.

July 16, 2015 Fine Arts Commission Hearing

Reyes-Gavilan opened the MLK Library presentation with a brief, spirited overview of the library’s ambitious goals for a modernized MLK building, and then introduced architect Houben and Emily Eig of EHT Traceries, founder of the most prominent private sector historic preservation consulting firm in DC.

Eig adroitly distinguished the extensive and detailed historic preservation guidelines for the entire Mies van der Rohe building, which her firm prepared and the HPRB adopted, from the changed conditions of the Library’s new plans for an MLK library and cultural center program. These current plans were — and are — historic preservation mediation guidelines for an existing MLK Library program, the building being in very poor condition, said Eig. Circumstances have changed, however, with a new library and cultural center program being developed for an adaptive re-use of the landmarked structure, which include the addition of a fifth floor and the significant redevelopment of spaces within the four floors of above grade space and the first level of the three underground floors. Thus, Eig stated, the building and its existing guidelines are looked at “in a very, very different way.”

Architect Houben’s eloquent presentation began with the display of an ingenious, bare-bones model of Meis’s dramatically stark design for this severe modernist building — a rectilinear box with four cores linking a stack of four above grade levels of library floor plates. This simplification of Meis’s complex design for the MLK Library building provided a launching pad for describing and displaying the architectural plans for the transformation of the building without losing its Meisian historicity — in fact, enhancing it — by opening the front entrance of the building with transparent walls replacing flanking metal panels with clear glass; removing the stolid buff-beige brick walls in the vestibule with glass and adding a visually open, wide staircase spiraling through the building linking floors two, three, and four up to a new fifth floor and terrace and down one floor to a reconfigured and opened up lower level; and connecting the new fifth floor and its rooftop terrace with a fourth and fifth floor auditorium and theatrical performance space.

The four connecting cores — the front two now serving private spaces and the back two public — would be reversed, and the interior partition walls on floors two through four would be opened up, creating clear vistas to reading rooms and program spaces on floors two and three. Lightwells through perimeter walls would dramatically brighten these intermediate levels.

The building’s first floor grand lobby would also be opened up by replacing the bricks beneath the MLK mural at the back of the lobby with clear glass pivot doors and constructing an events space behind those new doors through the redevelopment of the minimally used loading dock space originally planned for a book distribution system. In addition, an outdoor cafe would be created by removing one of the site’s outdoor walls at 9th Street and G Place, NW, and connecting that space with the corresponding first floor space.

These highlights of proposed changes and additions to Mies’ building engaged and excited the Fine Arts Commission members. Commissioner Edward Dunson commended the revised design and the new roof level: “it makes the Meisian building come to life,” he concluded. Another architect member asserted that the design struck “a good balance between maintaining Meis and opening up Meis.” Other comments included a recommendation for more light in the cores and less of a masonry look, together with a plea for the building’s front façade brick replacement with glass. Design tweaks and modifications from commission members were summarized in commission Secretary Thomas Luebke’s formal letter to the three principals, which reads in part:
“Expressing great enthusiasm for the proposal, the Commission approved the submission with the following comments for the development of the design. The Commission members expressed strong support for the general approach of the project in balancing the preservation of this Ludwig Mies van der Rohe-designed building with the enhancement of the facility as a contemporary metropolitan flagship library. They endorsed the range of interventions proposed — such as the trapezoid-shaped rooftop addition, the transformation of the building’s four cores, the conversion of the loading dock into an event space, and the reworking of the building’s site conditions — as protecting the austere Modernist monumentality of Mies’s architecture while adding vibrant new elements that are easily differentiated from the historic fabric.”

Continuing, Luebke added: “In their discussion, they suggested that the proposed green roof areas be simple in their design; they also raised concern that adding a guardrail at the upper roof would compromise the beauty of the design. They suggested that even more transparency for the core circulation would be desirable, revealing the expressive sculptural quality of the new stairs inside and helping to guide visitors through the building. For the site perimeter, they recommended restudying the conditions of the sidewalk and service areas, particularly at the proposed café on the northeast corner, to ensure a comprehensive and seamless design for the setting of the building at this prominent location in the city.”

HPRB’s July 23, 2015 Consideration

The preface to the HPRB’s consideration of the library’s revised plans was provided, as is customary, with a report and recommendation to the Board from the Historic Preservation Office (HPO) staff. In a disingenuous summary of the staff’s reaction, the report first stipulated the following:

“As a result of the Board’s [earlier] comments, the project has been modified to retain the brick façade, installing glass in only the two metal panels on either side of the entry. The form of the roof addition has been refined to better relate to the underlying geometry of the building, and the walls of the circulation cores will be largely retained on the upper floors. However, in the vestibule, the brick walls are proposed for replacement entirely with glass.

“The HPO does not find that the design has moved in a successful direction toward this recommended approach or to the Board’s January recommendations regarding retention of the core walls.

“For the pivoting doors at the rear of the lobby, a material has not been determined and the HPO seeks the Board’s input on the materiality and appropriate level [of] transparency.”

Yet somehow the HPO bureaucracy added a conclusion in contradiction to the report’s laying out of the HPO staff findings that asserted the revised design’s failings by stating in its final conclusion HPO’s recommended Board action: “With the recommendation for the removal of brick only within the recessed doorways of the vestibule walls, as noted above, the HPO recommends that the Board approve the concept as consistent with the preservation law and delegate further review to staff.” The real action desired by HPO is contained in the “conclusion’s” last five words: “delegate further review to staff.”

Next was the library’s presentation with Gregory McCarthy, President of the Library’s Board of Trustees, opening with a powerful presentation that first summarized his own prior experience of serving on the HPRB and subsequently being appointed by former Mayor Williams as the mayor’s State Historic Preservation Officer; he then summarized the importance to DC of the Martin Luther King Memorial Library building — second only to that of the Wilson Building, he said.

McCarthy also argued that MLK should be the hub of Washington — and it can be, he asserted, in an adaptive re-use, re-imagined version. He then recounted the alternatives considered — and rejected by the Board, pointed to the Library’s extraordinary track record in the adaptive re-use of the historic branch library buildings in Georgetown, Mt. Pleasant, Petworth, and Northeast and praised Mayor Bowser for continuing the legacy of her predecessors in funding such library projects as MLK, the Southwest branches, Lamont-Riggs, for example.

Library Director Reyes-Gavilan followed and even more briefly reprised his library programmatic summary, one centered on learning and not objects; transformative rather than transactional, embodying Martin Luther King’s dream in a library organized, as said before, into a “journey of learning.”

Francine Houben introduced the model and quickly reprised the project architects’ study of Meisian designed buildings. Emily Eig provided the changed circumstances gloss on the design guidelines for the Meisian building — written for remediation of the building in its present use and now to be considered in the building’s proposed re-imagined adaptive re-use.

Tom Johnson then presented the revised plans for this proposed adaptive re-use. It was a tour-de-force presentation by Johnson, who demonstrated his absorption of the detailed design of the current library building; the historic Meisian design objectives for such a mid-20th century modernist structure; the HPRB design guidelines for MLK, and a respect for the historicity and historic designated spaces in the building design; the work of the team of project architects from both firms in re-imagining MLK and, for that matter, input from the retired architect who worked with Meis on the original design; and the programmatic requirements — and desires — of the Library for a 21st century library and cultural center. The ease and prowess with which Johnson articulated how these complementary concerns and requirements had been woven into the project’s design recommendations obviously impressed the Board as reflected in their subsequent questions and comments and concluding endorsement of the project team’s work.

Johnson began by noting the major challenges faced by the designers — that of integrating public functions throughout the building and opening up the building and its cores to ensure that vertical connectivity was clear and transparent throughout. He then reprised the presentation made to the Fine Arts Commission in greater detail for the Board, adding fascinating architectural concerns regarding the removal of brick walls and original specifications of Mies — for example, green marble where the metal panels flank the entranceway and the industrial style buff beige bricks that Meis customarily used at the back of his buildings.

Comparison of existing public stairways with those being proposed was illuminating, and not to the advantage of Meis. Johnson followed with the redesign of the vestibule, the visually open stairway leading both up and down, the two-level auditorium and performance space on the fourth and fifth floors, the open public roof terrace, the new event space behind the MLK mural, the entrance being visually transparent with glass pivot doors, and the outdoor café at 9th Street and G Place. More details of each redesigned floor were shown. It concluded with an overview in a single large screen display of five images for the five “interventions” being proposed by the designers in the historic landmarked Meis building.

Public Witnesses

Public witness came forward to testify as a panel of five, the first being long-time civic activist and nearby neighborhood ANC Commissioner Alexander Padro, who served as a library trustee from 2000 to 2005 and was a long-time advocate for renovation and restoration of the building and the building’s retention as the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library. While a trustee, Padro recounted, he read and studied all the correspondence and plans for the building in the library’s archive; he supports the positions taken by the staff in its report, especially those calling for the retention of the brick in the vestibule and building interior; he additionally recommends that the first floor “tilt walls” be brick and not glass. Finally, he called for the retention of original handrail designs — in some fashion — from the existing public staircases in the cores at the back of the building.

Robin Diener, Library Renaissance Project Director and testifying as President of the Friends of the MLK Memorial Library’s executive committee, praised the work of the architects and spoke in support of the proposed café and the opening up of the first floor lobby and getting rid of bricks — which served as reminders of a prison to her literacy students who meet at MLK. Diener called for more glass and more transparency — as proposed in an earlier version of the project plans, a great central reading room — “a sacred space for books” as it is being called for by former Mayor Anthony Williams. She also recommended more community discussion of the roof design. And in “correcting the record,” Diener spoke of her role in saving the Mies building along with “others in the community,” together with such civic organizations as The Committee of 100 on the Federal City; all the while, she asserted, the Library Board of Trustees remained silent. Further, she recommended against any approval of the plans until such time as DCPL fully informs the community of its plans — e.g., who are the partners who will share space with the library in the expanded and reconfigured Mies building.

ANC 2C Commissioner John Tinpe, chair of the ANC District in which the MLK Library is situated, reported on the ANC’s resolution in support of the project. And both Jo-Ann Newhaus, long-time urban planner representing the Penn Quarter neighborhood and Susan Height, former historic preservation planner for the Rouse Company and President of the Federation of Friends of the DC Public Library joined Tinpe in support of the current plans.

According to George Williams, DC Public Library Press Officer, all five public witnesses are members of the Library’s MLK Modernization Advisory Committee.

Questions From the Board

All five Board members hearing the case were supportive of the library’s revised plans. Three of the members joined in an active engagement with the architects. Nancy Metzger charmingly coined a new term of art — “wallness.” This neologism arose when Metzer was wrestling with the question of replacing the brick in the vestibule and under the MLK mural. She confessed to a divergence from strict historic preservation when noting that she couldn’t stand the brick every time she entered the vestibule; vestibules should be welcoming and with the brick the building is not — and thinking aloud wondered if Meis would share the same reaction. She did, however, express concern about the lack of “wallness” in clear glass planes, especially since the new plans would provide two ways to come into the building from the vestibule — one by means of the new up and down stairway and the other directly into the first floor lobby. Similarly, she wondered if the clear glass of the pivot doors under the MLK mural would be distracting to activities occurring in the event space.

Architect D. Graham Davidson found it reassuring to learn about the vision of the library program and the attention to preservation; reminded the Board that Meis designed his buildings to be flexible in their interiors (Tom Johnson had earlier noted that Meis liked murals in the interiors of his buildings and did not like colored walls); Davidson praised the roof design as the best yet — the most resolved, combining the organic with the rectilinear; he agreed with the “flipping” of the building cores; recommended that the front entrance be a plane that is somewhat solid but “see through”; and agreed with the open staircase but wondered at the solid balustrades, which seem to be left over from an organic style, one quite separate from that of the building.

Chair Pfaehler expressed her pleasure that the library program was being worked through by the architects and that the open stairs moving up through the higher floors and down to lower levels provided the opportunity for organic curves within a geometric building but recommended that the balustrades be more transparent. She also expressed agreement with the revision of site walls, noting that Meis himself had problems with site walls. And for the pivot walls under the mural, translucent or as board member Andrew Aurbach suggested, metal mesh, observing that pivot walls do not need the same sense of solidity as does that of the vestibule. With the vestibule, Pfaehler recommended that planes be combined and emphasized that the vestibule need not be brick; rather, a framing system and translucent planes.

Phaeler then prefaced her articulation of the Board’s action endorsing the revised plans by directing the HPO staff to engage HPRB members to work with the applicant and a Board member through any issues that might arise as the architectural plans move to completion. The Board then adopted a resolution stating that “the Board approved the concept as consistent with the preservation law and delegated further review to staff.”

Editor’s Note: For our most recent previous report on this long-running story (since 2006), see “Long-Awaited Reconstruction of MLK, Jr. Central Library Project Ready for Design Concept Approval by DC and Federal Boards,” February 2015 issue pdf page 1.