News broke yesterday here in Washington that one of the most visible white elephants in the city, the former Carnegie Library on Mount Vernon Square, will become home to a new Apple flagship store. Renovation and conversion of the property, which has been closed off for some time now due to a serious mold problem, will be undertaken by Foster + Partners, the architectural firm headed by Sir Norman Foster. Foster also designed the nearby Kogod Courtyard, a space covered with one of his signature undulating glass roofs, which sits between the National Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum.
The Carnegie Library (also formerly known as the Central Library) was built in 1903 as a gift to the city by industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who spent a significant part of his considerable fortune building libraries all over the country. It was designed by Ackerman & Ross, New York-based architects who specialized in Beaux-Arts style buildings. Carnegie particularly liked their work, and a number of the libraries which he donated were designed by the firm, including those in Columbus, Denver, and East Orange, New Jersey. This particular library ceased to operate as one when the present, Martin Luther King Central Library, designed by Mies van der Rohe, opened in 1972.
Since then the building has been the subject of various redevelopment proposals, but nothing has really “stuck”. When I was in college for example, Placido Domingo and the Washington National Opera were trying to acquire the library to turn it into an opera house. At one point the building housed a DC City History Museum, but that closed due to a lack of interest. More recently, the Spy Museum attempted to obtain a long-term lease in the building, but was unable to come to agreeable terms with the city, so that institution is building a new museum elsewhere in town.
While I’m not a fan of Apple, they certainly have the wherewithal to make this building a functioning space again. And although my more classically-minded friends in the world of architecture will no doubt be aghast, personally I think that Sir Norman Foster is going to do a great job on both preserving and bringing this building up to date. It needs the help: it is not by any stretch of the imagination a particularly spectacular example of its style, unlike nearby Union Station, one of the most beautiful Beaux-Arts buildings in the world. Plus, the library’s position on what is essentially a giant traffic island makes it seem uninviting and inapproachable.
My ideal solution would have been to restore the building and turn it into the special collections home of the DC Public Library. It would have honored Carnegie’s original intent, and provided much-needed space for this public service. However, since I’m not in charge of these things, this new venture promises to bring back life to what has become a rather sad part of a revitalized downtown, and that does not seem to me such a bad thing.