The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library is set to close on March 4 for a three-year, $208 million modernization that will substantially alter the interior and exterior of the historic building — plans that have earned mixed reviews from the advisory panel created to help develop them.
Efforts to upgrade and renovate the central library, which opened in 1972 and was designated a historic landmark in 2007, have been in the works for over a decade, with concept designs coming together in the last two years. Major new features will include a fourth-floor auditorium and conference center, a rooftop deck and a ground-floor cafe. The front will be transformed into a large transparent entryway, and new rooms will be dedicated to fabrication, music production, art creation and an interactive children’s area.
An advisory panel of 18 citywide stakeholders provided input that led to the final design from the firms Martinez + Johnson Architecture and Mecanoo. Though the panel members all supported the goal of modernizing the outdated facility, differing opinions emerged during the design process, and some concerns still remain about aesthetic and functional issues.
Robin Diener, president of the library’s friends group, told The Current she’s disappointed with the “mundane” and “mediocre” plans. She said library staffers asked the design team for a “wow factor,” but she doesn’t feel this design reflects that request.
Diener is also worried that the auditorium’s fourth-floor placement will render it inaccessible to visitors with disabilities who can’t climb stairs and don’t want to ride a crowded elevator to the top floor.
For many stakeholders, a major point of concern is the neighborhood’s homeless population, which makes frequent use of the library as a place for rest and shelter but will have to contend without that resource for three years. Gerry Widdicombe, a design panel member and former DowntownDC Business Improvement District staffer, said he loves the plans overall but thinks the lack of concrete ideas for addressing homelessness issues remains a problem.
Meg Maguire, a design panel representative from the First Congregational United Church of Christ, across the street from the 901 G St. NW library, said her church will continue to provide Monday night drop-in hours, which typically attract 40 to 60 homeless residents. Staff at other D.C. libraries will receive additional training to handle a possible increase in homeless patrons, according to a library document on interim services.
At a media briefing Thursday, D.C. Public Library executive director Richard Reyes-Gavilan said that his team hopes to collaborate soon with the D.C. Department of Human Services on other strategies for aiding members of the homeless population who rely on the library. “I don’t have specifics, but those will materialize in the weeks to come,” he said of plans to find a drop-off and pickup area for the homeless population.
“You walk by it and you don’t even realize it’s a library” – Susan Haight, president of the Federations of Friends of the D.C. Public Library.
Other advisory panel members praise the modernization plans for promising better amenities for the downtown community. Susan Haight, president of the Federation of Friends of the D.C. Public Library, believes the designs portend a more vibrant facility.
The aesthetics, Haight added, will be a vast improvement. As is, “you walk by it and you don’t even realize it’s a library,” she said. “It’s just not street-friendly or welcoming.”
Widdicombe is particularly pleased with the roof deck and cafe. Both are likely to enliven surrounding businesses and attract more library users, he said.
Alex Padro, executive director of Shaw Main Streets, said he’s largely pleased with efforts to preserve Mies van der Rohe’s original architecture, though disappointed that existing handrails on staircases, a key feature of the 1972 design, will be replaced.
Another point of contention for the library’s stakeholders has been the issue of paying proper homage to the facility’s namesake. Plans include art installations honoring Dr. King in the vestibule, but Diener thinks the civil rights icon deserves a more concrete and substantial tribute. Diener remains an advocate for a room dedicated to re-creating King’s personal library and featuring a replica of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., where he led a key civil rights march.
But Haight thinks King will be honored best through programming, which she believes should focus primarily on his role as a teacher. “Having just a static statue or a static plaque was not what Dr. King was about,” she said.
The library has also served as a repository for much of the city’s archival collection, which will be dispersed during construction among the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.; the Peabody Room at the Georgetown Library; and the Library of Congress. The latter joined the effort after its new head Carla Hayden reached out to D.C. library officials upon reading about the modernization in the news, Reyes-Gavilan said.
Some residents are anxious about the prospect of moving those delicate materials, but ReyesGavilan said they’ll be properly cared for during transition and stored in climate-controlled facilities. The materials will be more difficult for the public to access during the transition, he admitted.
The project comes at a tumultuous time for libraries in general, as advancing technology renders some library functions anachronistic. Library officials say the new central facility will serve as a civic hub for the downtown area, filling a gap that the current building’s antiquated facilities can’t match.
“We really are intent on futureproofing this building so that it is not just a sanctuary for people who want to read or get a book, but a ‘third space’ for people who want to participate in everything that D.C. has to offer,” ReyesGavilan said.
While the library is closed, neighborhood libraries elsewhere in the city will offer extra morning hours on Thursday, and a small “Library Express” location at 1990 K St. NW will house some books and King Library resources, including the Adult Literacy Resource Center and the Center for Accessibility. Some regular library programs like the weekly film series and book clubs will be suspended during construction, while author talks, DC Reads and Jazz in the Basement will be relocated to other venues.