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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)

Nonworking elevators sent bibliophiles into the tomblike stairwells, where water dripped, courtesy of the faulty air-conditioning system. Over the years, many patrons avoided the bathrooms, either because they didn't work or didn't seem safe. Hundreds of light bulbs in the hulking, 400,000-square-foot space weren't replaced when they blew out, creating a dark and depressing, cavernlike atmosphere.

Simple problems became insurmountable, and the elevators, like an old car put on cinderblocks, were left unusable.

"What doesn't make good sense is that ever in this city we let maintenance in a public space that people use reach the point where elevators would break and never be fixed," Cooper said.

Some advocated selling or leasing the building. Last year, then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) tried to push through a $275 million plan to build a new central library, but the proposal failed to gain D.C. Council approval.

But the council did approve smaller sums so that Cooper could tackle projects throughout the library system. Cooper credits Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and the council for providing the cash, but library advocates say Cooper had a vision for spending it wisely.

In January, the library began a $550,000 project to fix three of MLK's five public elevators. Almost everything was replaced: the rails on which the cars glide, the cables that pull cars up and down, the controls that call elevators to each floor. In separate projects, more than 1,000 ceiling lamps have been replaced, making the building bright and welcoming. And the second-floor bathrooms, which hadn't worked for years, are back in business.

Last month, the library was designated a historic landmark. Its unique character -- at least its exterior and first-floor lobby -- will be preserved in the event of future renovations.

But some preservationists already have a quibble: Two of those modernized elevator cars did not preserve the Mies-designed interior.


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