Washington’s central library has the distinction of being the only building Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed in the city—and the only library in the German architect’s portfolio. Another distinction: It was named after Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1971, just before opening.
Decades later, the building had fallen into disrepair. Its gloomy, utilitarian interiors created a less-than-welcoming experience for visitors and staff. A visionary plan, based on years of research, community outreach and architectural review, was hatched to reimagine it. Following a three-year, $211 million renovation, the library is scheduled to reopen on September 24—under safe-distancing conditions.
The redesign spearheaded by Mecanoo, a Dutch architecture firm, and OTJ Architects’ DC office honors the legacies of both Mies and King. Though it preserved the iconic exterior and main-level grand entry hall, other moves took the structure in entirely new directions. Two spiraling staircases with skylights replaced dingy bricked stairwells. There’s an indoor slide for kids, a new dual-height reading room, a café with an outdoor terrace and a two-story auditorium. An events atrium—built atop the original four-story structure but set back so it doesn’t alter the view from the street—is rimmed by a public roof garden.
Richard Reyes-Gavilan, executive director of the DC Public Library system, looks forward to welcoming patrons. “The building is night and day from what we replaced in 2017,” he remarks. “Talking about a structure built primarily for the use and enjoyment of District residents, this is the most inspirational, useful and democratic building in the city now.”