Correction to This Article
In an April 23 Metro article on the District's central library, German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was misidentified as Dutch.
Renovation Futile, Leaders Say
Williams's Plan to Vacate Renowned Building Remains Divisive

By Susan Levine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 23, 2006

Although the District's central library remains architecturally significant, even a multimillion-dollar overhaul of the building would not create the state-of-the-art facility needed to transform the library system, several city leaders yesterday.

"You wouldn't be able to get a 21st-century library like you see around the country," said John Hill, president of the library board of trustees and chief executive of the business group known as the Federal City Council.

Beside him during the afternoon town hall meeting, held at the building being discussed, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, sat Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D). Last month, the mayor released an ambitious plan to restore the system to prominence, the centerpiece of which is construction of a $180 million main library several blocks away from the King library at the site of the old convention center. Yesterday, the mayor called the project a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" to remake the library as "a place for all Washingtonians."

"It would send a strong message about how we as citizens have great pride in building our democracy," Williams said.

Although there was little dissent about public libraries' role in a democratic society -- and about how the District's years of underfunding of the system has hindered that -- there was much disagreement among the more than 100 people in attendance about replacing Dutch architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's creation at Ninth and G streets NW.

Some speakers vehemently argued for maintaining the building's intended purpose, saying that renovation, while complicated, could achieve the same goals at less cost.

Ward 2 Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Alexander Padro was indignant that a building by one of the 20th century's most eminent architects might be abandoned. "After just a little over 30 years of use?" he asked.

The Williams administration's proposal showed a "failure of initiative," he told D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), who led the meeting as chairman of the council's Education, Libraries and Recreation Committee. "What we should be looking at is the fact that we can have our cake and eat it, too," Padro said.

"This is the most distinguished building ever built by District government," he said.

The central library, which was opened in 1972, has extensive flaws, and only some of them trace to poor or deferred maintenance. Others, such as inadequate wiring for computer technology, can be blamed on the building's age or design.

A street-level system of air louvers sometimes pulls in large amounts of exhaust, requiring intermittent air-quality tests. Ventilation problems, among other things, sometimes cause temperatures in the building to approach triple digits in the summer, occasionally forcing midday closures and endangering such important historical collections as the Washingtoniana archives.

Without adequate ultraviolet protection on windows, "our books are baking in the sun," interim library Director Francis Buckley said.

The building's supporters say renovation can fix those issues, as well as others, and create new atrium spaces and meeting rooms.

Patterson voiced concerns that an overhaul would force the downtown facility's books to be disbursed and services to be suspended until the project was completed.

But Ward 5 resident Peter Fay, a retired librarian, recalled the Library of Congress's protracted in-place renovation, and others noted that New York's famed main library had done the same without closing.

The Williams administration is not suggesting that the library be razed. Rather, the mayor's plan calls for it to be leased, with proceeds used to help pay the cost of its replacement.

The library system was the focus yesterday in talk and action. At four branch libraries in three of the city's quadrants, volunteers turned out despite the rain to paint, clear debris, remove graffiti, weed and plant flowers.

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