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Preservation panel turns away plans for Spy Museum at Carnegie Library

The Carnegie Library, built in 1903. (James A. Parcell/The Washington Post)
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Events DC, the District’s tourism arm, and owners of the International Spy Museum announced grand plans last year to expand the historical Carnegie Library in Mount Vernon Square and move the museum there from Gallery Place.

Perhaps they were thinking a little too big.

On Thursday, for the second time, the D.C. panel tasked with protecting historical buildings turned away the plans, with board members calling them too expansive and onerous for the building and the green space surrounding it on Mount Vernon Square.

Events DC and the museum’s owners, the Maltz family, have agreed to a partnership in which the museum would be turned into a nonprofit organization and relocated to a redeveloped Carnegie Library. The Historical Society of Washington would remain in the building.

But the library, completed in 1903, is far too small to accommodate all the Spy Museum attractions. So Events DC and the Maltzs proposed more than doubling the size of the 63,000-square-foot building. On the ground level, the additions would include two expansive, glass-encased wings; a cafe; a visitor center; and the museum gift shop.

Most of the new space — 47,000 square feet — would be constructed below ground for Spy Museum exhibits and educational spaces.

Events DC and the Spy Museum, working with architects from MGA Partners, had tried to address concerns the Historic Preservation Review Board raised during its first consideration and by members of the National Capital Planning Commission, which reviewed the project last fall

The changes to the proposal, Events DC, the Spy Museum and the architects said Thursday, would restore the building to productive use — a priority because it has not been used as a library since 1970 and repeated efforts for other uses have not panned out. Redeveloping it, they argued, would allow the building’s aging mechanical systems to be upgraded and its historical stone exterior and other features to be refurbished.

But the DC Preservation League, an advocacy group, steadfastly opposed the proposal, saying it would greatly diminish one of the city’s most famous examples of Beaux-Arts architecture.

In a letter to the board, DCPL Executive Director Rebecca Miller, called the proposal “an offensive request” and one that “highlights Event DC’s lack of respect for this building, the community, and this public process.”

“More than doubling the size of this building in the proposed manner no way enhances it and is by no means the only method of ensuring its preservation,” Miller wrote.

For the most part, the board agreed, asking that Events DC and the Spy Museum again reform their plans, in part to preserve more of the square’s vistas and green space.

Board member Charles Wilson said the expansion seemed to put the needs of the museum above those of the existing building.

“I think the current design is essential for the museum,” he said. “But I don’t think that should be our focus. I think we need to see a design that is [essentially] just for the building itself. And I do think it should be reduced in some form or fashion.”

Another board member, architect Joseph E. Taylor, said he thought that the plan’s proposed wings reach too far from the existing building.

“Take up less space, preserve more park area and connect to the existing building in a more judicious manner,” he advised.

Correction: A previous version of this story gave this incorrect name of the family that owns the Spy Museum. It is the Maltz family.

Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz