This summer marks the second anniversary of the reopening of the restored and repurposed Carnegie Library at Mount Vernon Square in Washington, D.C. The restoration of this remarkable 118-year-old building has uplifted cultural and architectural history, facilitated the site’s renewed role in connecting individuals and information, and stimulated the local economy.
In 2016, after a nearly 50-year period of inconsistent use and maintenance, a promising new opportunity arose for the Carnegie Library. Events DC, the authority that manages the building on behalf of the district, along with many other cultural and recreational facilities, announced that it had entered into negotiations with Apple Inc. The proposal centered on the opening of a flagship store, the Fortune 500 retailer’s second retail location in the district with an aesthetic that embraced the building’s history and Beaux-Arts style.
HISTORY OF THE BUILDING
Since 1903, Washington’s Carnegie Library building has anchored Mount Vernon Square, one of the original reservations in the George Washington-commissioned plan for the district by Pierre Charles L’Enfant. The building was the first Andrew Carnegie-funded library in Washington and is a significant example among the country’s thousands of Carnegie Libraries. It also has the distinction of being Washington’s first desegregated public building.
When approaching the Carnegie Library at Mount Vernon Square, visitors cannot miss these words: “A University for the People.” In keeping with its granite-carved promise, the building served as Washington’s Central Public Library for decades. In 1970, the district relocated the overcrowded central branch, and the site entered a prolonged period of underuse and disrepair. Before the newly restored building reopened in 2019, the Carnegie Library remained partially or wholly inaccessible to historians and citizen scholars. Among other corresponding impacts, public use of Mount Vernon Square’s adjacent green space declined.
The public’s relative lack of building access was not for want of trying. Most notably, in 1999, Congress granted a 99-year lease to the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., and provided funding in support of the City Museum, a new urban history museum. The Carnegie Library underwent significant changes during a related renovation, which included the replacement of a central skylight with infill slab and the construction of a new, higher-profile hipped roof. The City Museum closed in 2004, but parts of the building continued to serve as the base of operations for the Historical Society, which has since rebranded as the DC History Center.
DETAILS OF THE RESTORATION
While the proposal for the library building to become an Apple Store had immense potential, there were notable challenges to overcome. The project required review and approval by the National Capital Planning Commission, Commission of Fine Arts and Washington’s Historic Preservation Review Board, as well as the District Department of Transportation, Department of Energy and Environment, and Department of Buildings.
In addition to improvements required to the interior, the exterior of the building was in need of a full restoration, accessibility upgrades and new district-required onsite stormwater management. Furthermore, the construction would temporarily displace, and then relocate, the DC History Center. Three years later, Apple Carnegie Library opened to the public. Because of Apple’s interest and subsequent stewardship of the historic site, the Carnegie Library has received its most extensive historic restoration to date, much needed accessibly improvements were made to the exterior, and Mount Vernon Square is once again a destination park in Washington.
To bring this project to fruition, a project team led by Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners conducted a meticulous restoration of the Carnegie Library’s exterior and interior. The project team’s top priorities were the careful preservation of the historic façades, a reassertion of the interior’s original footprint, restoration of the building’s early 20th-century detailing, and integrating contemporary upgrades where necessary and appropriate.
The exterior’s heavily stained Vermont marble was cleaned to its former white brilliance through a low-pressure vortex micro-abrasive media process. The building’s marble details were understandably weathered by time, and their condition was respected and largely left intact. In select locations showing severe deterioration, the project team removed individual marble elements and replaced them with hand-carved replicas. The building’s larger sculptural components were repaired using a stone consolidation technique. The Milford pink granite base was also cleaned with a gentle micro-abrasive cleaning process.
The non-original hipped roof with clerestory, which had been installed during the City Museum renovation, was removed. The building’s copper roof was restored, including reinstallation of the copper- capped chimneys, thereby reinstating the building’s historic and highly visible roofline. As part of the roof’s revitalization, a new flat skylight was added.