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Plans for Major Rehab, Enhanced Use of Historic Carnegie Library Building Now Moving Forward

Accompanying images can be viewed on page 1 of the June 2017 issue pdf

By Matthew B. Gilmore*

 On June 1, 2017 the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) approved the conceptual plan for the rehabilitation of the Carnegie Library building as proposed by Events DC and Apple. The Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) had previously approved the plan on May 18th).

 To understand the significance of this plan for the building’s future described below, one needs first to know of its varied uses during the past 115 years.

The Carnegie Library on Mt. Vernon Square has been subject of controversy for much of its existence. It was funded through several generous donations at the turn of the 20th century by Andrew Carnegie, totaling $375,000. Designed by the firm Ackerman and Ross (which also designed the San Diego, Nashville, Atlanta, and Port Jervis, New Jersey, libraries; only Nashville and Port Jervis remain, San Diego was demolished in 1952 and Atlanta in 1977), it was first occupied in 1902, and dedicated as the city’s main public library in January 1903, with President Theodore Roosevelt in attendance.

The library outgrew its Beaux Arts-style building quickly. As early as 1930, a much larger central library was planned for the 400 block of Pennsylvania Avenue as part of the Municipal Center project; construction was to be completed in three phases. Begun in 1941, the first section, dubbed “499” (its address being 499 Pennsylvania Avenue) housed library administrative offices until 1971. This relieved some pressure on the Carnegie building.

 Construction of the other phases were interrupted by World War II, and were never resumed after the war. Finally, a 1961 study by Booz, Allen & Hamilton led to the Mies van der Rohe-designed Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library which opened in 1971 at 9th and G Streets, NW.

With the opening of this new central library, the Carnegie Library was rendered superfluous. The original plan was to have it serve as the portal to a campus for the University of the District of Columbia (UDC). UDC occupied it in 1980, but the campus plan for Mt. Vernon Square was nixed. After a huge summer rainstorm 1987 resulting in 12 feet of water flooded into the building, the administrative offices moved out and the university’s architecture department then occupied the building. There was also a plan, which failed,  to purchase and display Judy Chicago’s controversial large installation piece, Dinner Party.

Then in 2003, the Historical Society of Washington sold its Heurich Mansion house museum and headquarters at Dupont Circle to the Heurich heirs and relocated to the Carnegie building following interior reconfiguring to accommodate its Kiplinger Research Library and the creation of a series of galleries for its permanent collections and special exhibitions — now officially known as the City Museum.

Unfortunately, despite high hopes that the museum would become a much visited off-the-Mall tourist attraction in addition to being of huge interest to DC residents, the venture was short-lived and, as reported at the time by the Washington Post, closed after less than two years, leaving only the library and Society offices and a couple of second floor galleries for temporary exhibits and occasional lectures and special events. (Possibly the ultimate demise of the ambitious museum undertaking was foretold by a commentary that was published on page 16 of the September 2003 issue of The InTowner.)

Since 2005, the building has been the subject of various proposals, including a music museum and relocation of the International Spy Museum; this proposal got so far as to be considered by the NCPC, but never materialized.

[Editor’s Note: Detailed information about the Spy Museum’s proposed changes to the historic building to accommodate its needs, with illustrations, was provided in Stephen A. Hansen’s January 2014 InTowner article, “The Future of Carnegie Library: What Might Be.”]

Various previous proposals have seemed out of scale with the building as just not making sensitive or appropriate use of the existing space. Apple’s proposal, however, may finally be the one that’s “just right.” “The purpose of the project,” as stated in the proposal document, “is to rehabilitate and modernize the Carnegie Library building to become a retail and education facility.” Of course, conversion to retail use of any public facility is controversial in Washington, but precedent from elsewhere exists. Carnegie library buildings across the country have been preserved through conversion to a variety of uses, including retail.

Under the proposal, Apple and the Historical Society (HSW) will be co-tenants. Apple will occupy the main floor and will use that space for retail, events, and educational activities. HSW will continue to operate its research library, exhibit galleries, and administrative offices on the second floor.

The building itself will be restored and enhanced. The exterior will be cleaned and eroded stonework replaced. Windows will be repaired or replaced, as needed. The roof will be repaired. On the north side the current stairway, added by UDC in the 1970s, will be removed and replaced.

Inside the building, the east and west first floor wings will be restored to their original configuration, with the east wing theater removed and the 1999 aerial view floor map tiles removed from the west wing. (The mezzanines which once existed when the public library occupied the building will not be added back.) In the basement, the paint on the terra cotta Guastavino tiles will be removed and the tile restored. At the core of the building, the atrium will be re-created and extended bringing light down to the first floor; this will be accomplished by removing existing museum offices and gallery infill construction.

Overall, the renovations will result in a simplification of the spaces throughout the building as a result of the removal of later accretions.

The current plan for the landscaping outside the library anticipates very few changes, although the fine arts commission had urged further thought be given to this as part of its concept approval.

Apple’s Carnegie Library site will be one of what they call a “global flagship location” — one of 15 worldwide. For these, the company promotes a “town square” atmosphere, not simply a sales center. While Apple has not at this time provided much detail about what activities will take place, its slogan, “Education, entertainment, entrepreneurship” suggests it will be a magnet for large numbers of visitors — tourists, shoppers, and the just-curious — as  much like what one finds at its 5th Avenue and 57th Street location in New York. And as in New York, the distinct hope is to enliven the building and the neighborhood, with Apple as the destination spot.

 The library building is something most people see as they pass going somewhere else; convention attendees pass going to and from their hotel or looking for a meal in Chinatown. As it is now, the building is a very awkward site for any program within looking to convert passing foot traffic into visitors inside; Apple is probably one of the few that can make this happen.

Apple has a depth of sensitive historic preservation and adaptive re-use experience, in some very different historic structures. These include Grand Central Station in New York City, Regent Street in London, a former bank in Birmingham, and a historic former bank structure in Paris next to the Paris Opera.

The review process will continue, with “consulting parties” meetings to be scheduled during the summer. Further approvals from CFA and NCPC will be required as planning progresses, but the outlook for the project looks bright.

*Matthew B. Gilmore is the editor of the H-DC discussion list and blogs on Washington history and related subjects at 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.

© 2017 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Matthew B. Gilmore. All rights reserved.