The company plans to turn a Beaux Arts gem into a lavish gadget store. But there should be a better public use of such a cherished site.
Over the course of three decades, Andrew Carnegie helped introduce the American people to the notion of a public library. He built nearly 1,700 libraries across the country, most in small towns that may not have known they needed a library before Carnegie came calling. Between 1893 and 1919, the Golden Age of American libraries, he spent what amounts to $1.3 billion today building libraries in every state—even in Hawaii, before it was a state.
Now, Apple CEO Tim Cook wants to take one of them away. Last week, the tech firm revealed its plans to turn the Carnegie Library at Mount Vernon Square in Washington, D.C., into an Apple store. Like many Carnegie libraries, it is a Beaux Arts gem of a building, set apart in its own small park square downtown. The campus alone gives it prominence and dignity. One of four libraries built in D.C. with a grant from Carnegie, the Mount Vernon Square library is the only one that goes unused today, despite its stature. Other Carnegie libraries elsewhere have closed since the 1920s. Most towns and cities have found ways to use them.
In one sense, transforming the building into an Apple store would be a fitting move—a driver of the new Gilded Age taking up residence in an artifact from the old one. But, narrative symmetry aside, D.C. is making a mistake by giving its Carnegie Library to the mega-retailer. Apple could build a new store anywhere. This unique building deserves a public use, and so does Mount Vernon Square.
Apple’s offer to the District—to turn the Carnegie Library into a once-more vital public space—is as transparent as the glass cubes that the company once favored for its stores. Chasing experience is a real estate-driven strategy: Lately, the company’s been acquiring warm spaces with built-in cultural recognition, such as the Apple Williamsburg location, set in a Depression-era brick warehouse. That site was rehabbed by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, the architecture firm that designed the glass-cube prototype store for Apple on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, which is soon to double in size. San Francisco’s Union Square store, which opened last May, is another example, designed by Foster + Partners, the same firm that planned Apple’s spaceship in Cupertino.