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DC Public Library Seeks Architect to Rebuild Main Branch

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library is in desperate need of an overhaul. DC is looking for architects who are up to the task.

Defenders of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe will often point to DC’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library as a classic example of the German-born architect’s International Style. But the four-story building, which opened in 1972, is badly out of date, and sticks out as a decrepit behemoth at a time when the DC Public Library system has been honored for its otherwise forward-thinking design sensibilities.

But it’s finally time for an upgrade at the main branch. Library officials today launched their search for architects who might be able to modernize the building and transform it into a mixed-use development. Most of the building at 901 G St., NW would remain the library, but city officials eye turning it into a public-private partnership, with new structural additions for retail, office, or residential space.

There are, however, several catches. The library received local and national historic landmark statuses in 2007, meaning that any architect hoping to craft a winning bid will need to satisfy stakeholders besides DC and whatever private developer latches onto the project.

The request for qualifications issued today by the DC Public Library lays out the many bureaucratic challenges:

“Please note the design review process in DC is very complex, particularly when a rooftop addition and major façade renovations are required, and requires mastery of the DC historic preservation process, including the criteria for seeking approval of the Mayor’s Agent for Historic Preservation (if applicable), and experience in presenting to both the Historic Preservation Review Board, the US Commission of Fine Arts and National Capital Planning Commission.”

In short, any firm that wants a shot at this job will need to prove their ability to gut the library, install new infrastructural systems, transform the building into a contemporary education and work space, and make room for private development, all while managing not to upset Mies’ legacy.

There’s also the matter of where the money will be found to add two or more stories to the building. As Washington Business Journal reports, a concept floated last year by Freelon Group that shows an MLK Library with two more floors stacked on top of it would cost at least an estimated $250 million. DC’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year lays out $103 million on construction at the main library branch over the next five years.

Chief Librarian Ginnie Cooper, who plans on retiring this year, tells Washington Business Journal that the MLK Library project might result in more than two new stories. Cooper was honored last December by the American Institute of Architects for overseeing the renovation or reconstruction of 17 branch libraries since 2007.

Architecture firms looking to land the project on the main library have until Sept. 23 to submit themselves for review. From there, officials will winnow down the pool to between 10 and 15 firms that will then be invited to submit formal proposals.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.