By carving a large “donut hole” into the center of the existing Martin Luther King Memorial Library, the building could be an exemplary 21st-century main library space, full of light, open to multiple uses, easy to navigate and worthy of “a great city.”
Meeting on Wednesday night in special session in the main atrium of the rigorously modernist building — which is a study in right angles, rational layout and long vistas — the library’s board heard proposals for how to renovate the dilapidated steel-and-glass icon. Ideas included adding two more floors to the existing four, renting space to other tenants, converting below-ground levels to commercial parking and adding a cafe space under its stern, classically inspired loggia.
At stake is the future of one of the city’s most important examples of mid-century modern architecture, designed by Mies van der Rohe in the late 1960s — his only work in Washington, and his only library. The meeting advanced a process that began in November, when the library asked the Urban Land Institute to study its historically landmarked main building and consider all possible options. Among the possibilities on the table was to sell the structure and find a new home for a purpose-built main library branch.
But Wednesday night’s meeting suggests that the library is seriously considering the option of staying in its flagship, albeit with a major retrofit.
Library Board President John Hill said the purpose of the meeting was simply “to foster a discussion about the future of the library” and that no decisions would be made. But District librarian Ginnie Cooper said she had asked the library’s architect of record, the Freelon Group, to build on ideas that emerged from the ULI report and to consider the question: “Is a knock-your-socks-off library possible?”
Freelon came back with two basic architectural plans, both of which require cutting a large light well into the center of the rectangular structure. One design would criss-cross that space with stairways and bridges to create more open and dynamic floors. The other would emphasize the verticality of the new light well, with a glass-walled auditorium fronting onto a soaring central atrium. Both designs would keep much of the ground floor essentially intact — a requirement of the building’s historic preservation status — but would add stairs to allow patrons to circulate without using elevators.
Both designs include substantial renovation of the library’s systems, in many cases the same ones in place since it opened. That includes $12 million to replace the exterior glass windows — which, Freelon head Phil Freelon said, “waste energy to an appalling degree” — and $3 million to give the metal framing a fresh coat of paint, its first in 40 years.
Although, aesthetically, the library was thoroughly modern when it opened, many elements — including the light fixtures under the ground-floor loggia — are now antiquated: Bulbs burn out every six months, and replacing the entire system with something more efficient would cost more than $100,000.