Apple’s plans for historic Carnegie Library win early support

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Apple plans for the Carnegie Library's first floor to include a Genius Grove with tech support and hangout areas, as well as flexible space that will transform day by day. (rendering courtesy of Apple)

Plans to convert part of the Carnegie Library building downtown to an Apple Store drew enthusiastic support from neighbors and community leaders on Monday night, marking a win in the first step of a lengthy regulatory process for the ambitious project.

Last fall, Apple Inc. announced plans to build its second D.C. facility within the 801 K St. NW building, while leaving ample room for the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., which currently occupies the second floor of the two-story, 63,000-square-foot facility. Unlike the existing Apple Store in Georgetown, this location will offer more than customer service and product sales. On top of those offerings, developers envision the building as a refined community space for concerts, art exhibits, science workshops and workday hangouts.

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Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2C (downtown, Penn Quarter) voted 2-0 to support the plans from a preservation perspective in advance of the project’s May 25 consideration by the Historic Preservation Review Board. ANC 2C member Kevin Wilsey either consciously or accidentally invoked one of Apple’s buzzwords while praising the designs.

“I think it’s absolutely genius to bring the public and the private together like this,” Wilsey said. “I think a lot more people will visit the historical society than ever, and it’s going to bring in people who never would have dreamed of going to the historical society.”

Apple real estate and development executive Aracibo Quintana attended Monday’s meeting to describe the project. Once work is complete, the first floor will serve as Apple’s main hub, with event space situated in the former reading room area and a Genius Grove assistance space and seating area occupying the area that formerly housed the library stacks. Quintana — an Oyster Bilingual Elementary School graduate whose father Harry served on ANC 1C (Adams Morgan) in the 1980s — described the first floor as “a very serene place with nice beautiful natural trees.” He added that visitors will be greeted by a massive skylight and even more natural light, as Apple will reopen the building’s windows, many of which have been closed for years.

That pleasant vibe will draw more than visitors looking to repair their broken items, Quintana said. He expects people to eat lunch, drink coffee and meet friends there, just as they would at an outdoor park. Apple won’t be establishing food service in the building, though — “it’s not what we do.”

Many of the new building’s programs including workshops and seminars will be open to all visitors, even those who don’t own or intend to buy an Apple device, Quintana said. The second floor will remain in the historical society’s possession, though Apple will undertake some aesthetic renovations there as well.

Constructed in 1903 thanks to a donation by steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie, the Mount Vernon Square building served as the city’s main library for more than 70 years until the construction of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library.

Since then, observers agree that Carnegie has been underutilized. The main level and basement now serve as flexible space for the city’s official convention and sports authority, Events DC. The International Spy Museum advanced plans for the space in 2013 but couldn’t win preservation approval for its planned additions.

Apple is proposing no major changes to the exterior of the historic Carnegie Library building at 801 K St. NW. (rendering courtesy of Apple)

Unlike the Spy Museum proposal, Apple doesn’t plan drastic exterior alterations at Carnegie. Though several neighbors spoke up in favor of the project at Monday’s meeting, one expressed concern that the project would add gaudy features to the attractive historic building. Quintana countered immediately.

“You’re not going to be seeing a big Apple backlit or neon sign on the building,” he said. “The idea here is to respect the architecture, respect the building, respect the fact that we share this wonderful place with others. You won’t be seeing anything garish from us.”

As of now, no alterations to the adjacent Mount Vernon Square park are in the works. Some details of the configuration could be adjusted, according to Quintana. Apple’s team has already conducted traffic studies and expects more than half its daily visitors to be pedestrians, cyclists and public transportation users.

Historical society executive director John Suau reiterated his excitement at the meeting, adding that the group’s lease in the building extends to 2098.

As for a previously announced plan to transfer some materials from the recently closed King Library’s Washingtoniana collection to the Carnegie facility temporarily, Suau said he doesn’t know when that collection will be available to the public.

Quintana repeatedly declined to offer residents a timeline for the project, citing the unpredictable regulatory process. The National Capital Planning Commission will meet with the project team on May 17 as part of its review, and designs will come before the Commission of Fine Arts on May 18 and the Historic Preservation Review Board on May 25.

Several neighbors rallied other meeting attendees to affirm their support for the project. “This building has been like a mausoleum since I moved into the neighborhood in 2005. Despite millions of dollars built into it, it’s basically been devoid of human activity,” Howard Marks said. “I just applaud Apple.”