January 24, 2014

Save Our Saucer: The Fight to Protect a Space-Age Artifact in Hyattsville, Md.

Prince George's County Memorial Library

photo by: thesentinel.com

The library and accompanying saucer were built in 1964 and dedicated to the memory of President John F. Kennedy, Jr.

The flying saucer hovering above the doorway of the public library in Hyattsville, Md., is meant to look futuristic, a poured-concrete ode to the Space Race and America’s midcentury fascination with all things extraterrestrial.

Inside, though, the 1964 building is notably dated. “There’s no technology infrastructure,” explains Michael Gannon, associate director for support services at the Prince George’s County Memorial Library System. “There are very few electrical outlets, and it’s also barely ADA compliant.” He adds that the windows in the building had to be bolted shut after they frequently slid open by themselves.

Although plans to replace the low-slung, brick modernist building with a brand-new structure are underway, a small but vocal Hyattsville group has spoken out in favor of preserving the approximately 20-foot tall glass and concrete saucer, as well as the library as a whole. The “Save Our Saucer” campaign has garnered more than 500 Facebook “likes,” and while the tone on the page is humorous and lighthearted, giving “Saucer” a personality (a post from last August features the cover of “The Flying Saucer Mystery,” a Nancy Drew novel, while the caption reads “What Saucer read over the weekend”), it’s clear that the space-age relic holds a cherished place in the hearts of longtime Hyattsville residents.

“The saucer, and the building it welcomes people to, has historical, cultural and emotional significance to Hyattsville and the larger community it serves,” the Save Our Saucer campaign stated in an email.

Save Our Saucer is strongly advocating for preserving and updating the entire library as an alternative to demolition, arguing that the saucer might look out of place in the context of a completely new library building. They also argue that the library's technological and ADA-compatibility shortcomings could be just as effectively addressed through a renovation.

Save Our Saucer Logo

photo by: Carter Ross, Save Our Saucer

The Save Our Saucer campaign is attempting to preserve the entire library, as well as the iconic concrete saucer.

“The library is one of the few intact midcentury modern public structures in the area, and is likely the most iconic structure in the city of Hyattsville,” says the Save Our Saucer collective, partially spearheaded by Hyattsville resident T. Carter Ross.

While the library has held a community meeting to weigh public opinion and gather input, the consensus among public library employees and county officials is that the current library simply isn't worth saving. Gannon cites a report from a 2010 facility assessment stating that the building would be more expensive to renovate than replace.

“We have buildings that are historical and architecturally significant, and Hyattsville is not one of them,” Gannon says of the larger system of public libraries in Prince George’s County, some of which have won architectural awards.

Outside of the Save Our Saucer group, Gannon explains that public opinion is split on whether the concrete spaceship should be saved. “Some people say they love the saucer, that it reminds them of their childhood, but there are people who are just as vehement the other way,” he says. Love for the saucer has been evident all over Hyattsville, however; local pub Franklins Restaurant recently brewed up a batch of Save Our Saucer-themed beer.

Still, public input will be the most important factor in the development plans moving forward. “We want what the community wants,” Gannon says. “When we get an architect on board, we intend to have more community meetings.”

Construction on a new building was scheduled to start in 2015, but plans are currently on hold while the county considers different architects for the project. At this point, it's unclear if the saucer can be moved without sustaining damage, or what the price tag of moving the entire structure would be.

One of Save Our Saucer’s next moves is going to be attempting to convince the county to conduct a feasibility study for rehabilitation of the library, with the hopes that they will consider saving the building. The saucer could possibly find new life as a freestanding structure, but without the context of the original mid-century library, says the collective, "it would serve more as a memory of what was lost, rather than as a symbol of progress."

Katherine Flynn is an assistant editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys coffee, record stores, and uncovering the stories behind historic places. Follow her on Twitter at @kateallthetime.


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