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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.

By Marc Fisher |  February 25, 2009; 8:15 AM ET
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The people of Mount Pleasant are simply unbelieveable. They won't even allow an "outside group" to tastefully renovate a library desperately in need of renovation. All because a) they weren't the primary decisionmaker and b) they don't want ANYTHING to change because they represent the worst of NIMBY activism.

The library design looked great. The city should just ignore Mount Pleasant and Tenleytown. Let them make improvements with their own money, rather than waste everyone else's time and resources on their petty bickering. What's a shame is that this is the only legit library in Ward 1, so the rest of the ward is suffering based on their NIMBYism.

Posted by: sgrahamuva | February 25, 2009 10:08 AM

Yes, the Mt Pleasant library is in need of renovation. But the proposed plan was anything but tasteful.

And it is not just residents of Mt Pleasant who were opposed to the plan - I live in Columbia Heights & agree with those opposed to the design.

Posted by: sharondc | February 25, 2009 10:57 AM

The library should not be commended for this process at all, much like the author states. Ginnie Cooper shoved her agenda and program for the library design on the people of Ward 1 and Mt. Pleasant. It wasn't an open process, much like they decry, and didn't involve the local ANC's or community groups in its planning. And when you are building a public building with public funds, that should be the first thing that occurs.

In addition, the library is also cutting off fire escape access to a neighboring building and the 20 residents that live there. You'd think there would be a little bit more sensitivity from the library's perspective on this, especially with the fact that a building not 100 yards away burned to the ground.

And the Federal Arts Commission put the kibosh on the library's plans mainly because of their lack of community engagement in the design process.

I am all for the library expanding and being able to extend its services but I want it done in an intelligent way that reflects what the residents and city needs and not the myopic view of a single person or office.

Posted by: seanpgannon | February 25, 2009 11:12 AM

The library got themselves into this mess by choosing a design firm with virtually no experience in historic preservation or historic districts. The other libraries they have designed are not in historic districts and most are not additions to historic buildings. By picking Core Group, it was clear that they were choosing a glass design.

Note, that for the Georgetown rennovation, they did pick a firm with significant experience in preservation.

"The Library has hired the local firm of Martinez & Johnson Architects, in partnership with Hoshide Williams, to design the renovation of this historic building." (Georgetown).


Posted by: sam35 | February 25, 2009 11:37 AM

A violation of "home rule" this was not. Remarkably, Mount Pleasant organizations that are usually mutually hostile came together to object to this design, for differing reasons: Hear Mount Pleasant, the Mount Pleasant Neighborhood Alliance, Historic Mount Pleasant, the ANC, and immediate neighbors. One common complaint was that the DC Public Library had done little to work with neighborhood groups to come up with their design. "Home rule" shouldn't mean that a District agency can impose its will on neighborhoods.

Posted by: jamckay | February 25, 2009 12:42 PM

Hahahahahaha!!!!! You think that is "a striking and inviting mix of old and new?" You're a worse architectural critic than you are a journalist. To me that is a trite, jarringly discordant addition, drawn out by an amateur or an intern at best. It kinda looks like the library pooped out an Apple store. No doubt an addition would be warranted, and perhaps the existing building "is in bad shape and is wholly inadequate," but this looks like a nightmare to use and maintain. I'd give it 3 months before the roof leaks, and another three before they install dark drapes to cut the blinding glare. At least the drawings are accurate in not showing anyone sitting near the windows, because that area is going to be cold and drafty in the winter and hot and musty in the summer. They need some serious reworking here to get this project to be successful.

*click* Now I get it. You don't think architects should have to get feedback from residents and a Commission of design professionals because of your own aversion to fact-checking and editing.

Posted by: sacomment | February 25, 2009 1:50 PM

It is interesting that the Commission, some community groups, and Fisher are writing about the design and the comments here seem to go all over the place.

I don't like the design. I think it should be more historic. But I don't like what I am reading here.

What I also find interesting as a Native Washingtonian, and as a Mt. Pleasant resident who grew up in that library, is that in an area as richly diverse as my neighborhood many of the groups claiming to represent my community - and the public at large- are racially homogeneous, upper-income, and mono-lingual. Maybe that is just my observation.

Take a breath people. Enjoy your coffee. Look around you gentrified condos. It seems like you are making this library thing your soapbox at the expense of people who really have concerns about the design. I am glad that so many NIMBYs have been mobilized but I have not heard anyone say they were an architect.

The only new piece of information to me, and I would love to read more about it is how can the library build to go on another person's property and block their fire escape. Was there a hearing or something before that land was taken from those people?

Posted by: newnegro | February 25, 2009 3:37 PM

Has the Commission of Fine Arts seen the new renovation of the Portrait Gallery downtown? The undulating glass canopy over the historic courtyard is a striking mix of old and new. What's with the double standard??

Posted by: DistrictDirt | February 26, 2009 11:06 AM

Wait. Am I "reading" the picture wrong? Are they going to cover the windows??? If so, that's so wrong! And, we don't need it to be a whole lot bigger. What we do need is SERIOUS UPGRADE. Upgrade of facilities - use the space better! And attitude and liveliness of staff. They can do it, I know they can. Good staff just needs to be re-inspired. The library is beautiful the way it is from the outside, and from the inside it just needs renovation and upgrade.

Posted by: bid999 | February 26, 2009 1:37 PM

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