Famous 20th century architecture doesn’t equal good 21st century libraries.

It’s hard to find a landmark building in Washington more polarizing than the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. Designed by legendary German-born architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the city’s central library was never much loved by Washingtonians. If anything, its popularity has gone downhill since its 1972 opening.

Historic quirks in Mies van der Rohe’s DC Public Library building could survive a redesign.
Historic quirks in Mies van der Rohe’s DC Public Library building could survive a redesign. © Photograph courtesy of DC Public Library

Not all of the antipathy is the fault of Mies, as the architect is commonly known. But some is. “The lower-level auditorium could be the most depressing place to ever attend a public meeting,” says Ginnie Cooper, who retired a year and a half ago as DC’s chief librarian.

In his 1985 biography of the architect, Franz Schulze concedes the point: “There are no special spaces or interior sequences, little connection of inside to out, and no sense of quality.”

Other problems are of a practical bent. “You really have to want to climb the stairs,” Cooper says of the library’s four staircases, which are enclosed entirely in brick walls, “because you can’t find them from the main floor of the building.”

Which is why the prospect of major changes to the building caused so much excitement when proposed. But now, as a four-year process wends its way toward a final design, it’s clear Washingtonians shouldn’t expect a major overhaul of Mies’s flawed design. Instead, the most likely outcome is a balancing act that adapts some new ideas while retaining—in the name of historic preservation—some of the architect’s original foibles.

In late April, the Dutch architecture firm Mecanoo and its local partner, Martinez & Johnson Architecture, will release their latest updates to the design concepts they submitted to win the commission last year. While the scheme is still under wraps, recent developments make it clear there won’t be titanic changes. The ambitious proposal for a three-story rooftop addition is gone, rejected by the library’s trustees in January. It will be replaced by a single floor, respectfully set back from the street by a garden-like public space.

Also out: the idea of replacing the entrway’s dun-colored brick walls with enough glass to give passersby a view of the activity inside—and reveal those phantom stairs. Ditto Mecanoo/Martinez & Johnson’s idea of replacing a series of windowless central rooms on the upper floors with wide-open spaces. In January, DC’s Historic Preservation Office recommended against both subtractions. Even this new scheme won’t be final. The National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) won’t authorize a firm plan before this summer at the earliest.

It’s not all bad news.