D.C. Library Gets Sorely Needed Lift

Isaac Wangatia, a Wilson Senior High School aide, wheels Isaiah Bibiley into an elevator at the main D.C. library. Chrichelle Brown holds the door.
Isaac Wangatia, a Wilson Senior High School aide, wheels Isaiah Bibiley into an elevator at the main D.C. library. Chrichelle Brown holds the door. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
By Elissa Silverman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 24, 2007

For more than five years, day or night, summer or winter, whether the book in demand was about Harry Potter or "freakonomics," one thing was always the same at the District's central library: At least two elevators were out of service, and those who tried the others were tempting fate.

Then one recent day, it happened: All five worked.

The moment was so miraculous that large banners were placed at both ends of the library proclaiming that the elevators were safe. One of the city's last monuments to dysfunction, bureaucracy and civic inertia had been toppled.

Like other glitches that prove far tougher to fix than they should be, restoring elevator service at the main library was no small feat.

When Ginnie Cooper became the city's chief librarian a year ago, a member of the library's board of trustees told her he had one goal: getting the elevators at the main library to work.

"That made an impression on me," said Cooper, who previously headed the library system in Brooklyn, N.Y. "I remember thinking: They don't fix their elevators? What's wrong with this picture?"

Even library employees have a hard time nailing down the last time the pair of elevators on the western end of the building worked. Anecdotal evidence places that milestone in 2001 or 2002.

The elevators were one of several structural flaws at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. They first broke down days after the building opened in 1972. The heating and cooling systems were also trouble. This, in an elegant, glass and steel building designed by one of the most renowned architects of the 20th century, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe -- who, interestingly, is credited with popularizing the adage "God is in the details."

Mies, who also designed New York's Seagram Building, along with fellow Modernist Philip Johnson, never got to see the completed library. He died in 1969, about three years before it was finished.

When the breakdowns persisted, finger-pointing ensued. Did the fault lie with the design? Or were the builders to blame, or the city government that failed to properly maintain the landmark building?

But one thing was never really in dispute: For many years, in good times or bad, the library seemed to get the short end of the stick.

"When there was a lot of money in the D.C. treasury, the library was the last to get its share," said Jim Lewis, who has served on the library's board since 2002. "But boy, oh boy, when the treasury was close to empty, the library was the first to be cut."


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