The Founders Library at Howard University, on Feb. 29, 2016, in Washington, D.C. The National Trust for Historic Preservation is joining Howard University in an effort to find a preservation solution for the library. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

The National Trust for Historic Preservation is partnering with Howard University to breathe new life into the school’s iconic Founders Library.

The nonprofit organization on Monday named the library a national treasure, a designation that ensures that the group will work to preserve the character of the historic building. The trust is helping the university develop a renovation strategy to repurpose underused spaces in the library and add research technology.

“We strongly believe that older buildings should not be trapped in amber and left to gather dust behind a velvet rope,” said Stephanie Meeks, president of the trust. “Working with Howard, we’re going to make Founders a creative learning space for the 21st century, while maintaining its distinctive character and central place in the life of the university.”

The organization is assembling a team of preservation architects and business leaders to secure the money to implement that vision, said Brent Leggs, senior field officer at the trust. He envisions a two- or three-year timeline to hammer out a plan and raise the money to bring it to fruition. Leggs said the group is still determining the full scope and expense of the project, but he expects the rehabilitation to cost at least a few million dollars.

The trust has a strong record of securing funding from corporate partners, including American Express. The credit-card company has pledged $6 million to restore landmarks in the national treasures program, which consists of more than 60 sites across the country. Funding from the company helped restore Union Station and the Decatur House, one of the oldest surviving homes in the District.

Wayne A.I. Frederick, President of Howard University, at a news conference Feb. 29, in Founders Library. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

Leggs anticipates that the trust will be able to bring American Express, which typically confers grants of about $300,000, into the Founders restoration project. The preservation group will assist the university in seeking federal and new-market tax credits that could lower construction costs by 20 percent. But the credit-card company has made no commitment of grant funding.

Howard will have to kick in funding for the project, which the university hopes to secure through a fundraising campaign tied to its 150th anniversary next year.

The project arrives as the university is trying to reverse years of financial strain and bring in new revenue. Since the beginning of the year, Howard has struck a $22 million deal with Jair Lynch Real Estate Partners to turn a residence hall into luxury rental units and decided to participate in a federal auction that could lead to the sale of the airwaves used to carry the signal for its television station.

“We’re in the planning stages of a major capital campaign, and the preservation of this building and making it more contemporary is a part of that campaign,” said Howard President Wayne A.I. Frederick. “Buildings like these are important. The history and legacy that they house are even more important.”

Perched atop a hill overlooking Howard’s campus, Founders opened in 1939 as the largest and most extensive research facility at a historically black university. The four-story Colonial Revival was designed by African American architect Albert I. Cassell, who, Frederick said, was inspired by Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were debated and adopted.

“Blacks in this country at that time, despite what the Constitution said, were not operating under an equal system, so the building was designed with that in mind,” Frederick said.

Congress appropriated $1 million for the construction of the library, which was the most expensive building on a college campus at the time.

Although Founders has been primarily used as a library, it served as the home of Howard’s law school from 1944 to 1955. During that time, Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall used the site to craft the legal strategy at the heart of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case that desegregated the nation’s public schools.

Founders houses the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, one of the world’s largest repositories of historical records documenting the global black experience. The center has first editions of preeminent African American books, including titles by Zora Neale Hurston, and it is home to the papers of singer, actor and activist Paul Robeson, as well as those of Harlem Renaissance-era philosopher and critic Alain Locke.

For the most part, the grandeur of the library’s architecture, with its sweeping views of the campus from the reading room, remains intact. Yet the building is showing its age, with minor cracks in the walls and chipped paint.

University leaders have over the years weighed various options for modernizing Founders. Before he retired as director of the research center last year, Howard Dodson Jr. drafted plans to repurpose the stacks and upgrade the library system. Leggs said the trust will build on those ideas as it moves forward with the restoration plan.

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