October 20, 2022

The People’s University: The Martin Luther King Jr. Library

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library is a 2021 recipient of the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation National Preservation Awards, the highest national recognition bestowed upon a preservation project by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Award recipients represent the best of the best in historic preservation, adaptive reuse, and the re-imagining of historic buildings for the future.

The 400,000-square-foot Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library was designed by pioneering Modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in 1972. The library is his only building in Washington, D.C. and his only realized library in the world. It is also the city’s first memorial honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Despite calls for the library’s closure in the early 2000s after decades of disinvestment in the aging building, the efforts of historic preservation activists won out and the city moved forward with rehabilitating and adapting the building for modern use. In 2020, DC Public Library completed the full transformation of the historic building. The six-year $211 million project, led by Mecanoo Architects and OTJ Architects, was fully funded by local tax dollars, and caps the near-culmination of the $500 million investment in the revitalization of more than twenty neighborhood libraries across the District.

The results of the city-owned landmark’s stunning modernization includes 100,000 square feet of additional public space, and a careful balance between the preservation of iconic Miesian elements and the desire to provide exciting new spaces, programming, and services that redefine the library experience for District residents in the 21st century.

The following Q&A is with the DC Public Library—one of the key partners whose work made this project possible. Learn more about the full slate of 2021 awardees.

photo by: Robert Benson Photograph

An exterior, corner shot, of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library post-renovation, featuring a moment from the projection, “March on Washington,” by Robin Bell of Bell Visuals.

In the early 2000s, there were conversations about closing and relocating the library, but the efforts of preservation activists saved it from demolition or relocation. What tools did activists use to save the building from this fate, which ultimately led to its transformation?

Many steps along the way ultimately led to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library's modernization. In the early 2000s, disinvestment in the aging library and its increasing functional obsolescence led some prominent voices in the city to call for the building's closure and relocation. Resistance to the closure prompted a successful effort to landmark the building in 2007.

The D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board voted 8 to 0 on June 28, 2007, to name the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library a historic landmark. Tersh Boasberg, then the chair of the body, based the decision on the building's architectural importance and its historical significance of being the only building in Washington named in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

While that decision made the historic preservation community and others very happy, library officials were left wondering how to make the dark, uninspiring, and transactional interior relevant for the next generation of District residents. In 2014, following the successful reopening of several new neighborhood libraries, the library secured funding to begin the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library modernization.

photo by: Imagine Photography

New Grand Reading Room with double-height ceiling, including ceiling art installation by Xenobia Bailey.

The restoration of this iconic building included an extensive community engagement and public input process. Can you talk about that process and any ideas that came out of it?

Community input was critical to designing the modernized Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. The library began seeking ideas about what residents wanted to see in a modernized central library in the fall of 2013. This process continued throughout the design process.

The library hosted more than 60 community meetings with stakeholders around the city to share design ideas and gather feedback. In September 2014, the library convened neighborhood meetings to answer questions and get residents' ideas for the building. Each session was hosted by a MLK Library Renovation Advisory Panel member. The library also conducted focus groups and surveys with a wide range of residents, including adults, seniors, teens, school-age children, teachers, parents with young children, Spanish-speaking customers, and other stakeholders. In addition, the design team presented the designs at Advisory Neighborhood Commission meetings, at neighborhood association meetings, and gave a presentation at the National Building Museum.

photo by: Robert Benson Photography

New entrance to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library—the restored Dr. King Mural and new informal performance space beneath it can be seen in the modernized Great Hall beyond the vestibule.

Many of the new features in the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library were informed by community input. For example, before modernization, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library did not have a grand reading room like many other downtown central libraries. The community input revealed a strong desire to have this feature. The architect team used that information to design the Grand Reading Room not located on the library's third floor.

The community also felt that the building could better show Dr. King's impact on Washington, DC, from a local context. While Dr. King is known for leading the March on Washington and other national Civil Rights efforts, he also was a strong voice for D.C. Statehood and other local issues. Therefore, the Library design included an exhibition space on the building's fourth floor dedicated to telling stories about the local impact of Dr. King.

photo by: Robert Benson Photograph

New entrance to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library where the brick facade was reduced in favor of more glass, featuring one of two new monumental staircases.

Can you provide some examples of the programming and services offered by MLK Jr. Memorial Library. Who are they designed to serve?

As the central library for the District of Columbia, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial library is designed to serve residents and visitors from all walks of life. The building's programs include discussions with best-selling and emerging authors, cultural exhibitions, computer-training courses, story times, and emerging technology workshops. In many ways, the library is the people's university.

Donate Today to Help Save the Places Where Our History Happened.

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A woman stands with a mountain in the background smiling at the camera.

Lizzy Barringer was the manager for grants and awards at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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