MLK library gets landmark status

A significant Modernist building in Washington is now protected from demolition.

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The D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board handed advocates of preserving Modern architecture a victory late last month, voting 8 to 0 on June 28 to name the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library here a historic landmark. The library's status was uncertain at the time of a June 20 Monitor story on the subject.

Renowned Modern architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed the library in 1968, but many preservationists were concerned that the city planned to sell the rundown building with no guarantee of protection from demolition. Now that the library is a historic landmark, Washington's Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) must approve any future changes to the exterior or first floor of the building.

Tersh Boasberg, chairman of HPRB, says that the decision to grant the library landmark status was based both on its architectural importance as well as its historical significance as the only building in Washington named in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

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Despite talks last year of moving the library, it will continue to serve as the central branch of the D.C. Public Library system, says Don Hawkins, director of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City – one of three organizations urging landmark status.

Future plans for the building include repainting, replacing lights, fixing elevators, and making more bathrooms accessible to the disabled, says Ginnie Cooper, head librarian for D.C. libraries. Her office is also developing design guidelines for the library, she says, so that "those of us who are here now and those who are here later can keep in mind some of the principles of Mies's architecture" when making renovations.

Modern architecture is characterized by a lack of ornamentation and its use of 20th-century technology and materials such as steel and glass. Preservationists say the architectural style is increasingly threatened by demolition or radical renovation. Granting landmark status is seen as one of the best ways to protect these buildings.

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