U.S. Taste Police Nix D.C. Glass Library
The arbiters of taste at the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts just can't stop themselves. Much as they protest that their primary goal is to provide "expert advice" to help "preserve the dignity of the nation's capital," the federal commission serves mainly to prevent the city from evolving over time as any living place must.
Fresh from their latest rejection of Apple's design for a store it wants to open in Georgetown, the commission has turned its zealous defense of the look of the past to the D.C. Public Library. Last week, the commission rejected the library's plan to modernize and expand its Mount Pleasant branch. The Italian Renaissance building, which opened in 1925, is in bad shape and is wholly inadequate for the demands of a library in the electronic age.
To open up the building and make it attractive to adults, kids and people who ordinarily don't set foot in a library, D.C. libraries director Ginnie Cooper brought in one of the city's most respected architecture firms, Core Group, which has provided the city with four clean and fresh-looking interim libraries in Tenleytown, Anacostia, Benning Road and Shaw. The architects came up with an expansion that retains the original look of the building but adds a glass box extension on Lamont Street NW. The result, which you can see in these plans, is a striking and inviting mix of old and new.
But some neighborhood activists didn't like the plan. Historic preservationists said any addition ought to be "deferential in impact to the original building.... The proposed glass box draws the eye away from the original facade and detracts from the original building." At night, said a letter of protest signed by leaders of four community groups (Historic Mount Pleasant, Hear Mount Pleasant, the Mount Pleasant Neighborhood Alliance, and Mount Pleasant Main Street), said the addition would be "an intrusive bright light into the windows" of nearby residences.
Now the federal arts commission has put the kibosh on the current plan, delaying renovation of the library. It's important to note that before the design went to the feds for approval, the D.C. library held three community meetings and responded to neighbors' complaints about the plans.
The D.C. library has been far from perfect in its planning for new libraries, and there are good, tough questions to be asked about whether the system is pumping too much of its precious resources into building small neighborhood branches rather than larger and more comprehensive regional libraries. But Cooper has been a great advocate of recruiting creative and respected architects to the District to push the decrepit system into a new era. It's sad to see the federal authorities once again stomping on innovation and the faint whispers of home rule.
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