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Outdated Eyesore or Modern Masterpiece?

Rebecca Miller, executive director of the D.C. Preservation League, hopes the city's modernist flagship library will be restored instead of torn down.
Rebecca Miller, executive director of the D.C. Preservation League, hopes the city's modernist flagship library will be restored instead of torn down. (By James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)

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By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 16, 2006

It was designed by one of the 20th century's greatest architects. More than 30 years ago, this newspaper reported that the building "creates impressive, almost exhilarating spaces" and that "generosity, airiness and a nobility, or rather an ennobling feeling, are the words that come to mind throughout the building's four stories of book stacks."

For many D.C. library patrons, those words have long ceased to describe the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library at Ninth and G streets NW.

A recent visit found three elevators out of order, broken water fountains and locked bathrooms, blown-out lights in dark stairwells and missing ceiling tiles that exposed the building's rotting innards. With patrons sleeping in cheap folding chairs and ripped vinyl covering an old piano, the atmosphere was hardly "ennobling."

The question now is whether the library building itself is an architectural gem or a poorly designed, poorly maintained anachronism. And now that formerly "new" and "modern" buildings such as the library are getting up there in years, how much effort should be expended to protect them?

Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and the library board of trustees want to replace the King library with a building -- also named after the slain civil rights leader -- that would anchor the redevelopment of the old Washington Convention Center site. A November draft report by the mayor's library task force said, "A new system needs a new central library to replace the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library, an outmoded structure erected long before the advent of the digital world."

But some preservationists and community groups say it would be cheaper and equally effective to renovate the flagship building. A group of organizations and the city have filed to add the 34-year-old library to the National Register of Historic Places, effectively preventing any immediate demolition, said David Maloney, spokesman for the city's Historic Preservation Office. City officials are planning to solicit proposals for renovation and possible alternative uses of the G Street structure.

Historic preservationists say the District must protect its modern buildings of significance, such as the library, and not just places with columns that were once home to people who wore powdered wigs. Other modernist buildings in the city include the I.M. Pei-designed Third Church of Christ, Scientist, at 16th and I streets NW, and the Danish Embassy on Whitehaven Street NW. Even better known are two neighbors on the Potomac River, the Watergate complex and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Modern architecture uses modern materials such as concrete and glass, employs forms defined by function and is generally bereft of ornamentation.

Look beyond the water stains, broken blinds and worn carpet of the central library, preservationists say. The building, which opened in 1972, is the only library designed by architectural icon Ludwig Mies van der Rohe that was actually built. Look closer and you will see the fingerprints of the man who designed New York's Seagram Building and was director of the Bauhaus, the influential German design institution.

"It's extremely significant as the only Mies van der Rohe in the District," said Nell Ziehl, spokeswoman for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Outside, notice the ground-floor loggia with cantilevered upper floors clad in grids of black-painted steel and dark glass. At night, the library looks see-through, with bookshelves and overhead lights forming another neat grid. Very Mies.

Inside, see the granite-topped circulation desks with custom-made shelving and pencil holders. Notice all the chrome-plated hardware and the shadow on the main floor where card catalogs used to be. Many of the original Steelcase tables remain. In the fourth floor's executive offices, Mies's original furnishings are still there, including his famed Barcelona chairs with X-shaped chrome bases.


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