IT WOULD BE HARD TO DESIGN a major public library more dismal than the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in downtown Washington, D.C. The blame lies only partly with the building itself. The MLK Library, as it is called, opened in 1972 as the city's central facility and was one of the last designs by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. It resembles one of the architect's handsome skyscrapers, only one lopped off at the fourth floor. From the outside, on G Street, near the heart of downtown, the black building with tinted windows has a rational purity that precedes its purpose. Its colonnade spans almost a block. The building's frame is set on a 30-foot grid to allow a large, airy lobby and bright reading rooms. When it opened, the building was in many ways the classical ideal of a library made modern.
These days, the library usually seems empty. At the entrance, there are no signs to direct visitors. The lobby terrazzo is worn, and the fluorescent lights overhead are harsh. Few of the library's moving parts work correctly, owing to decades of deferred maintenance. The elevators are unreliable, and the stair halls are dark, hidden, and, like many of the corridors, depressing.
Collections like those for periodicals and black history occupy airless rooms with no natural light. The amenity of the rest rooms is best described by three words posted inside them: “No Bathing Loitering,” though homeless people routinely ignore that injunction.
There isn't much that people in Washington agree on, but most concur that their public libraries are shabby, and that the MLK Library, especially, is practically unusable. Over the past decade, as cities from Nashville to Seattle have opened grand new libraries, the MLK Library's condition has only saddened while its neighborhood has revived around it.
The once-slatternly east end of Washington, where the 400,000-square-foot library sits between two major subway stations, has recently surged with sparkling blocks of new offices, hotels, and restaurants surrounding a new sports arena and two newly renovated Smithsonian museums. And the library's block of G Street, long a pedestrian plaza, has reopened and swirls with traffic. Amid this activity, the library is a holdout of the abandonment that defined Washington's years under its former mayor, Marion Barry.
Although the MLK Library is roundly seen as broken, there are sharp differences about the best way to fix it—or even if it should be fixed at all. Washington's outgoing mayor, Anthony Williams, waited about five years, until his final months in office, to acknowledge the condition of the library.
Two years ago, Williams began pushing a plan that involves closing and leasing the Mies building and using the money to help build a new library nearby on a site formerly occupied by the old Washington Convention Center. It would accompany 1.5 million square feet of offices, housing, and stores on the four-block site being developed by Hines Interests and its architect, Foster and Partners. But the mayor seems uninterested in the fate of the library building—the only Mies building in the District of Columbia.
The city's disdain for the MLK Library did not begin with Williams. The building's condition has worried local architects and preservationists at least since the mid-1990s.
In 2000, on behalf of the local American Institute of Architects chapter and at the request of the library's board of trustees, Washington architect W. Kent Cooper led a volunteer team of six other architects in conducting a detailed study of ways to renovate the Mies building.
In recent years, Cooper has worked to preserve the National Mall's open space from increased pressure to install new memorials. Cooper began focusing on the MLK building in the 1990s, when two officials with the Downtown Business Improvement District alerted him to talk of tearing it down and replacing it with an office building as downtown's redevelopment got under way.