Housing Complex

Bigwig Panel: Build Two More Floors on MLK Library

The central library could get taller. (rendering from savedclibraries.org)

Over the past week, a panel of real estate, marketing, and library experts have been interviewing dozens of local figures, pouring over market statistics, and touring the surrounding neighborhoods to figure out what to do with Washington's central library. The experts, coordinated by the Urban Land Institute at a cost of $125,000, evaluated three scenarios: The library remaining in Mies van der Rohe's landmark building as the sole tenant, another tenant coming in to share the space, and the city selling the building and moving somewhere else entirely.

This morning, they came back with their recommendation: Add two floors on top of the four that already exist, and lease it to somebody else, which would generate between $4.1 and $5.5 million annually in rent. The co-tenant would have their own entrance on the northeast corner. That, in turn, could help finance renovations on the rest of the building, estimated to cost between $200 and $250 million (which also drags down the potential return to the city should it choose to sell the building outright; the panel estimated it would only fetch between $58 million and $71 million in the current market).

What? Won't the historic preservation community scream bloody murder to alter the landmark so drastically?

Probably not, according to my informal poll of mucketymucks after the presentation. As Kriston Capps so lyrically stated last year, the central library is a "Mies cut off at its knees." Most of his other boxy buildings were taller, and so the proportions would work out. Furthermore, the design-centered panelists suggested that two additional floors could have an inner atrium, which would allow light to pour into spaces that in the lower floors are currently enclosed and unusable. It would be an engineering challenge, but allowing more floors could be the only action at this point that would allow the library to remain in the lower floors (given that administrative functions would move off site, likely to some needy spot east of the Anacostia).

A sketch of how things would work.

Mostly, said panelist and historic architect Mimi Sadler, van der Rohe wanted his spaces to be flexible, and to be used. "If adding two floors makes this building viable into the future," she said, "I'd say Mies would be out there applauding."

The full powerpoint presentation—including a sketch of how the floors would sit—will be available this afternoon [UPDATE: Here it is!], and the panel's full report within two months.

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  • Thayer-D

    Saying a Mies building has proportions is like saying grid paper has scale. When there is only one (window) unit repeated ad-infinitum, how does one measure proportion? Why not add seven stories? Saying you could add two more stories to "right" the proportions is an admission that the building has no proportions, except for being stalky.

    As much as I dislike Mies, he's a part of our cultural inheritance, and as such, we should make the most of this building, if we're going to keep it. This is a perfect job for Shalom, Core, or MacInturf, who and have done elegant neo-Meisian stuff for years. Make it a modern sculpture gallery with clear glass so the original concept of Meis's "transparent" modernism could be capitalized on. But adding two floors to it would make a mockery of the Historic nature of the building becasue it wouldn't be a Mies building anymore.

    For one of the pioneer modernist architects that prostelytized about form following function, this building's a joke. Every librarian I've heard that's worked in this building says it's a miserable failure. So lets build a Library that functions properly and make the most of our very own modernist "masterpiece".

  • Cap City Records Panhandler

    901 G 4IFE

    (The ULI panel largely regurgitated the recommendations of Mayor Williams' Blue Ribbon Task Force. Any and all attention on MLK Library is good attention.)

  • LOL

    It is good that two studies reached the same conclusion. Now what is going to happen?

  • http://westnorth.com Payton

    The original design of the building actually anticipated at least one more floor, and given that old libraries are engineered for very heavy floor loads I'm sure that it could easily support two floors. Although I haven't studied a monograph yet, I'm not aware of many other Mies-designed buildings that are anywhere between 2 and 20 stories tall.

    Mies was a complete stickler for proportion; from the Farnsworth House to the Chicago Federal Center, the golden ratio keeps appearing in his work with almost uncanny regularity.

  • Anonymous1984


    Bless you!! Thanks for reminding us about the Golden Section.

    The ULI panel members should be commended for their energy, optimism and fresh look at MLK as well as confirming that our so-called city "leaders" are as nuts as we think they are.

    One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different outcome, and if you google Kent Cooper (no relation to DCPL head Ginnie Cooper) Architect, you'll see that he and the American Institute of Architects came to the exact same conclusion as the ULI panel... for free.


    My only question is, "What were the ULI panel members "pouring" over the marketing statistics--milk and honey? Or perhaps a soupcon of reality?"

  • LOL

    From reading the slides, I don't think that ULI came to one conclusion. It seems like they proffered the pros and cons of a few alternatives. Regardless of the source, let's hope that the Mayor and City Council support and make something happen. Let's also hope that the people who have opposed every singe new thing that could possibly be done at a library don't use this as another opportunity to assert themselves, like they have done over the last few weeks, find something else to do.

  • Rich

    The document is a laughable waste of money, with lots of cute glossies and vaccuous quips. The light well idea is inconsistent with Mies' ideas and an expensive waste of space likely to have iots own maintenance issues. A building that size will be "dark" if only because the lighting is outdated. Mies' designed open flexible space and it seems unlikely that a new structure could offer much more. Investing in MLK is the only option that is even close to feasible.

  • LOL

    But if the additions were added and part of the space was leased, there may be money for the upkeep of the lightwell and more.

  • Adam L

    I fully support adding two (or more) floors to the building and leveraging a private partner to help pay for the improvements and repairs. This is how we should develop all public properties downtown to take advantage of the District's still-strong property market for public benefit.