The renovation of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library was 10 years of dedicated work from the Library Board of Trustees, staff, community partners, District agencies, and countless other individuals and organizations. DCPL documented the project for posterity.
Planning for the modernization of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library began in 2011, when the DC Public Library engaged the Urban Land Institute (ULI) to assess the condition and suitability of the historic building as a modern library, and to advise on options for renovation.
ULI gathered a team of nationally-recognized experts in architecture, urban planning, development and libraries. After interviews with more than 70 individuals, including various stakeholders, tours of the building and nearby area, and conversations with library and District agency staff, the ULI issued its findings in a report that outlined the following options:
- Renovate the building for sole use by the library.
- Renovate and add two or more floors to the building, sharing occupancy with other tenants, and using the revenue from the additional space to help fund the renovation of the library.
ULI presented its findings at a community meeting attended by more than 200 people in November 2011. Download the PDF report here.
In September 2012, the library engaged The Freelon Group, the Martin Luther King Jr. Library architect-of-record at the time, and other consultants, to test the options identified in the ULI report and present their findings to the library board and the community. Their work and the conceptual images support the following conclusions:
- It is possible to make the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library a knock-your-socks-off library for the 21st century at the current site, if extensive and expensive improvements are made.
- The existing structural support system of the building makes it possible to add two floors to the building to accommodate other uses, without additional support.
At their November 2012 meeting, the library board passed a resolution stating that the central library will remain in its current location, 901 G St. NW, and reaffirmed that it will continue to be called the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library.
Library Board Chose to Pursue Five-Story Stand-Alone Library
On Jan. 28, 2015, the DC Public Library Board of Trustees adopted a resolution supporting the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library modernization design approach as a stand-alone library with a fifth-floor addition.
The board recommended the fifth-floor addition approach instead of the three-story, mixed-use addition after considering the requirements for a modern library, factoring in community feedback and reviewing the cost-benefit analysis of adding three new floors.
The board concluded that modernizing the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library with a fifth-floor addition would accommodate the library’s building program with the option of including mixed-use, like a café and restaurant as well as space for non-profit and government partners.
Regulatory Review Process
The design for the central library underwent extensive regulatory review by three agencies. The lead agency was the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), which has purview because the building is historically designated and sits within the central area of the nation's capital. The other two agencies were the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) and the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB). NCPC gave final approval to the plans at a hearing on Oct. 6, 2016. The Commission of Fine Arts reviewed and approved the plans at a public meeting on Oct. 20, 2016.
Library Building Program
Through community input, conversations with staff, review of other central libraries around the world and consultations with the design team, the Library developed a Library Building Program. It was guided by four principles:
- Balance the joy of reading with space for innovation, creation, collaboration and technology.
- Showcase the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.
- Respect the building’s historic designation and the industrial, modern style of the original architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
- Create a space that is bright, open, flexible and welcoming for all.
In short, the aim was to go beyond a library that is merely transactional – a place where you go simply to check out a book – to create a library that truly transforms lives – a world-class library for the 21st Century.
Architect Selection Process
The library hired the design team of OTJ Architects and Mecanoo (OTJ acquired Martinez + Johnson Architecture, which was half of the team that was selected in 2014. Martinez + Johnson was a D.C.-based architecture firm with extensive experience with historic modernization projects including D.C.’s Takoma Park and Georgetown libraries.) Mecanoo is a Dutch-based firm whose work includes Boston’s Dudley Municipal Center and the Library of Birmingham in England.
The Library convened an Advisory Panel of community stakeholders who provided input throughout the design process.
The documentary film “A Legacy of Mies and King” provides a look into the history of the MLK Library and the design process. Follows architect Francine Houben, creative director of Mecanoo Architecten, as she investigates the past and present in order to design the library of the future. Houben delves into the archives, meets contemporaries of Mies and King, speaks to current library visitors and participates in the District’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade to understand how to give the District’s central library a new future.
After a 3.5-year modernization, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library reopened on September 24, 2020. The transformed flagship library now features:
- a spectacular new, vibrant and transparent entryway
- sculptured monumental staircase
- a large auditorium and conference center
- creative spaces for fabrication, music production and art creation
- ground level café with patio
- double-height reading room
- newly designed special collections space
- a rooftop terrace
The $211 million rehabilitation has positioned D.C.’s central library to become the center of activity for the already vibrant downtown area.