Modern Rebel: MLK Jr. Memorial Library

Modern Rebel: MLK Jr. Memorial Library

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Maxwell Ryan
May 30, 2008

One of the few modernist buildings in DC, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library has been the source of controversy since it opened in 1972. The building was designed by legendary architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe just months before his death, and is his only library design that was ever built. The recessed ground floor loggia, cantilevered upper floors, and grids of painted steel and dark windows mark the library as a masterpiece of the modern movement...

Unfortunately, decades of deferred maintenance and neglect have left most patrons with a poor impression of the library, one that does not take into account its architectural significance. Broken elevators, malfunctioning heating and cooling systems, and unusable restrooms plagued the building for years, and led the library staff itself to favor moving the central library to a new location.

In late November 2006, former DC mayor Anthony Williams proposed building a new library as a part of the redevelopment of the old Washington Convention Center. Current Mayor Adrian Fenty shelved that plan, and the DCPL has begun to resolve long-standing maintenance issues at MLK. On June 28, 2007, the Historic Preservation Review Board designated the building (including the interior spaces) an historic landmark, giving hope to residents who want to see the current library restored rather than torn down.

(the lobby soon after the 1972 opening - courtesy of the DCPL Collection, Washingtoniana Division)

Though we've never enjoyed our library experiences at MLK, we have always admired the way the transparent building looks, especially when it is illuminated at night. Whether you love or hate the architecture of the building, it is worth a visit if only to view the extraordinary local history collection on the third floor. Today the Washingtoniana collection consists of more than 25,000 books, 8,000 maps, 2 million photographs, 2,000 postcards, 1,000 liner feet of vertical file material, 13 million newspaper clippings and 1111 liner feet of archival collections, and donations are always welcome.

- Colleen

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