Steve Jobs minted Apple as a top American retailer by designing crisp, modern stores with designs reminiscent of the company’s products. Glass boxes and aluminum panels abounded.
But as Apple moves to turn its stores into experiences — places for concerts, art exhibitions and photography classes — the tech giant has begun to pursue distinctive, yet familiar, buildings its customers might admire as well.
In the District, the company has set its sights squarely on the Carnegie Library in Mount Vernon Square. One of thousands of libraries built nationwide with funds donated by steel tycoon and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, it opened in 1903 as the first desegregated public building in the city.
Apple officials say they plan to restore the building to its original grandeur and outfit Carnegie as a place to hold a slate of free, open-to-the-public concerts, art exhibitions, workshops for teachers and coding classes for children.
Trial programs in other Apple stores have included presentations from community artists and photographers, as well as concerts and talks from bigger names, such as when hip-hop producer RZA led an “Art of Beatmaking” session at the company’s Brooklyn store last fall. The company plans to release a fuller slate of events around the country this month.
The ultimate goal, of course, is to sell more iPhones and iPads. Where the Carnegie Library once housed the city’s book collection, Apple plans a “Genius Grove,” a tree-lined sales floor where company reps will demonstrate how to maximize Apple products for music, photography or other passions. What long ago were reading rooms would become places to browse and sample Apple products.
“This is a way of creating a reason to come to the store, to touch and feel our products, but also to have an engaging experience with someone who is passionate about the same thing,” said B.J. Siegel, Apple Retail’s senior design director.
Finding historic buildings with stories rooted in their communities are part and parcel to the experience Apple is trying to create, Siegel said. The company in recent years has opened stores in a former restaurant bay in New York’s Grand Central Terminal, a Depression-era brick storefront in Brooklyn and a 130-year-old former bank in Paris.
Rather than plastering the buildings with the company’s logo, Apple’s designers say they will focus on restoring the building’s historic character. It can take a little work to find the store’s signage and logo — which is the point.
“For us, it wasn’t about coming in and leaving our mark,” Siegel said. “It was about bringing the history back out and respecting it.”
“We’ve discovered that big garish logos on historic buildings don’t work very well, so often we try to find more subtle ways to brand the building,” he added.
That couldn’t be further from the failed strategy of the last pursuit of the Carnegie Building. The International Spy Museum proposed moving into the Carnegie Building more than three years ago, but they sought to double the size of the 63,000-square-foot building by building two expansive glass-encased wings. The District’s Historic Preservation Review Board turned the proposal away.
Apple does plan on opening up a skylight in the Carnegie Building’s roof above a central events area, and there are bound to be questions about handing one of the city’s more cherished buildings to a corporation.
But there is wide agreement among District officials that the Carnegie Building could be better utilized. Despite its visible location south of the city’s convention center, it mainly serves as an office space for the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., and a venue for the occasional wedding or reception organized by Events DC, which manages the building.
When Apple signed a letter of intent to lease the building, in December, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser issued a statement saying an Apple store there “could link D.C.’s rich history to our continued economic renaissance, will demonstrate the strength of our retail market, and will tell companies across the globe that the District is open for business.”
Even the Historical Society isn’t going anywhere; Siegel said Apple considered it a benefit to have such a unique community institution as a neighbor and that the organization would maintain offices on the second floor. Gregory A. O’Dell, president and chief executive of Events DC, said he was “working to support Apple with its plans as well as our partners in the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.”
The company is scheduled to present its plans to the neighborhood Advisory Neighborhood Commission on Monday evening.
In New York, Apple picked up a historic preservation award for its work restoring the sort of buildings that, in Jobs’s era, it would not have considered. Angela Ahrendts, Apple’s current senior vice president for retail, considers it essential to the company’s future that it be more than a place to buy things.
“Starbucks figured it out, for being a gathering place, right? ‘Meet me at Starbucks,’ Ahrendts told “CBS This Morning” in a recent interview. “I’ve told my teams, I’ll know we’ve done a great job if the next generation, of Gen Z, says, ‘Meet me at Apple.’”
Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz