The Carnegie Library – then and now

The Carnegie Library in Mount Vernon Square has gone through many transformations since it opened in 1903. The newest version of it opened less than a week ago, featuring an Apple store. Since the building is on the National Register of Historic Places, Apple had to preserve the facade, adding just a small Apple logo below the windows flanking the front door.

The building was the gift of Andrew Carnegie, and for 70 years served as the central library for D.C. In recent years, we’ve been intrigued by a few unusual uses of the building.

The building as art

At Art All Night in 2015, artist Monsieur Arthur mixed paints for a live feed projection on the front of the building.

In 2014, Suman Sorg’s work Air Dancer was in front of the building.

Using the building for play

Before the building had started to be renovated, it was often a place where young people came to skateboard or do stunts on the large plaza in front of the building. Here’s the most dangerous stunt we saw: someone would run fast across the plaza, bound up on the bench, and then fly over the wall.

In the image below, you can see how risky this stunt was. Just over the wall is a narrow passage to the basement floor, about nine feet below the wall. A short jump would land down into this passage, and a longer jump would hit the shorter stone wall or the plantings beyond it. While the kids were doing these stunts, they had covered this landing area with some old mattresses, but it remained very dangerous. Police would sometimes come by and stop these activities, but inevitably the kids gravitated back.

For a few days when the building had been closed for renovation, someone put a giant rubber duckie on one of the stone posts – perhaps inspired to make a comical version of the New York Public Library with its stone lions.

The building was often rented for large corporate or other events. This image shows two event greeters through the windows of an antique car parked out front.

Here’s the complete evolution of the building:

  • 1899 – Andrew Carnegie gives $250,000 to the D.C. library board to build a library. Twenty-four architectural firms submit plans in a national competition, and the New York firm of Ackerman and Ross is chosen.
  • 1903 – the library opens, at a total building cost of $350,000. The curved stone benches across the front are inscribed A UNIVERSITY FOR THE PEOPLE
  • 1969 – the building is placed on the National Register of Historic Places, citing it as “an excellent example of the neoclassicism in vogue at the beginning of the 20th century,” and its location on one of the squares laid out by L’Enfant’s plan for the city. The filing with the National Register contains a lot of detail on the building’s history and construction.
  • 1972 – the library, with its 2 million volumes, has outgrown the space. MLK Library is built as the new central library, and the Carnegie Library ceases to be a D.C. library
  • 1972 – 1980 – the building is largely unused
  • 1980 – 1993 – the University of the District of Columbia library spends $4.2 million to open a university library in the building. This was part of a larger plan to construct a downtown UDC campus in the surrounding blocks. UDC spent $9 million to purchase land around the building (the surrounding area had vacant lots, including a lot where D.C. stored impounded cars, and a number of residences and stores). Construction of the campus would have required an additional $56 million. While the D.C. government supported this plan, due to the lack of home rule, Congress had to approve the funds. After a long battle, Congress refused, citing the declining enrollment of UDC and the practicalities of concentrating on the existing campus. The city and UDC students were angered by this action, feeling that having the only UDC campus in upper northwest was elitist and far away from much of the student population.
  • 1993 – 1999 – the building is largely unused
  • 1999 – the D.C. Historic Society moves into the building, signing a 99-year lease with the city. The Historic Society occupies a portion of the building, and rents out the main spaces for corporate and other events.
  • 2003 – 2004 – A City Museum of D.C., under the control of the Historic Society, was authorized in 1999 and opened in the building in 2003. It closed less than two years later, because of lack of funding and attendance
  • 2011 – The Historic Society enters into an agreement with Events D.C. to manage the building and rentals of the space. The building needs extensive renovations, so plans are to find some sort of lease or other agreement that will fund the renovations.
  • 2013 – 2014 – Working with Events D.C., the Spy Museum plans to redevelop the building, along with planning to expand the space by adding wings to it. Negotiations with the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board break down in 2014.
  • 2016 – the building is closed due to finding high levels of mold
  • 2017 – Apple signs a 10-year lease for part of the building and agrees to fund the renovations. Apple spends about $30 million on the restoration (including about $7 million on the facade) and will pay a lease of $700,000 per year
  • May 11, 2019 – the new Apple store opens on the first floor, and the Historic Society moves back in on the second floor. The Historic Society also creates a new History Center with a research library and galleries.

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