Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library


            The Martin Luther King Library also known as (MLK Library) was built in commemoration with the Civil Rights leader named Martin Luther King Jr.  It held significance for the Washingtonians since this building is host to the variety of programs and activities that made it a heart of community life in the city.  The library has been home to almost millions of students and guests since its inauguration, and has plenty of collections and various information centers that served its patrons.  However, over the last thirty years the library was poorly maintained and is now facing either to replace the structure or to renovate it. It stands to lose its significance as a historic landmark once the city council decided to build a new one.

The Martin Luther King Memorial Library in Washington D.C. has been subjected to debate whether to upgrade the facility or to sell it as critics including the city mayor himself viewed the building as depressing and defective. In the meantime the Historic Preservation Review Board designated the structure for preservation and maintenance. Built in 1972 as a memorial to Martin Luther King Jr, the MLK Library is now considered a hazard and in danger of extinction.  In his article in the Christian Science Monitor in June 2007 edition, Tillman stated that the building was “plagued with leaky ceilings, broken elevators, and wasted space” (par. 1).  Alexander Padro stated that the MLK Library has suffered neglect for the past three years and many of its facilities were broken and out-of-use including drinking fountains, the HVAC system, dumbwaiter and pneumatic tube stations, obsolete card catalogs, and the valuable furniture designed by Mies himself.

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            Due to its historical importance and its essentially modern architectural design, a group of local officials and architect nominated the building for a historic landmark status (par. 3), as despite that the building is currently in bad condition, many found it still momentous for its architectural built. The building has sleek exterior that made it looked astounding as a product of modern design because of its behemoth of black steel and tinted glass.

The Architect and His Design

            The architect, Ludwig Van der Rohe (known by his friends as (Mies) had been renowned as one of the pioneer in terms of modern architecture.  The son of a stonemason, he got experience in construction from his father but as he acquired formal training he wanted to create a work of art that represents modern times as influential as the twentieth century with touch of simplicity and clarity commissioning both the architecture and technology. Before he immigrated to the United States in 1938, Mies started his own office in Germany in 1912. From there, he became a member of the Deutscher Werkbund and Director of the Bauhaus until his immigration to the United States in 1938.

When the Carnegie library was concluded as obsolete in 1961, the Library Board of Trustees identified and purchased a site at 9th and G streets for the construction of a new library building. With more than thirty architects interested in the project, Mies was selected by a five-man panel who then prepared the design of the building, which was approved by the Fine Arts Commission in 15 February 1966.

Prior to his selection as architect of MLK Library, he had worked in partnership with Frank Lloyed Wright designing Magdeburg house and other famous building such as the Eichstaedt House in Berlin, Germany in 1922, the Fritz & Grete Tugendaht House in 1928 in Czechoslovakia, and the Barcelona Pavilion in Spain in 1929. He had also designed many other buildings in Chenango and Illinois.

The Style or technique Used by the Architect

            As anyone can see the building was lavishly made of steel and glass. The architect obviously had expounded his natural skills and interest in intensifying individual’s experience in space.  His style is connected to the ideal of nature creating a connection to the natural sphere through delicate resonances between his materials steel, glass and stone and other natural elements such as water, light and space. Mies exposure to European architecture had used the modern aesthetic style in Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library that caught the attention of many.  Aesthetically, Mies’ architectural style as Craven noted, “were very close to the geometric, rectilinear designs of the Dutch De Stijl group” (p. 507). His aphorism in his style is called “skin and bone” because he liked the “skeletal frame…with membranes of glass or brick filling between the structural parts” (Craven, p. 507).  He usually used modern materials such as industrial steel and platter glass in the exterior of the building.  Although the concept is 20th century glass box style, the steel frame with glass or brick infill, had been popular for many.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library is considered as an outstanding example of the 20th century architectural design and it has been known as a classic work of modernist architecture. Its interior has flexible plan allowing much space for more furnishings especially its fifth floor.  According to Alexander M. Padro, the purpose of the space was to ensure that the building could continue to be utilized for another one hundred fifty years.

            The spaciousness and lightness in reading areas are splendid that anyone would find himself sitting inside comfortably with views of the city. Its collection of original furniture adds the aesthetic value of the building. According to Catherine M. Miliaras , architectural historian, original furnishings is especially important in the aesthetic significance of the building.

            Despite being old, the whole structure is not out of character; rather it stands as a historic character preserving its conservative dignity implying as historic landmark at the heart of the

The Success and Failures of the Building in its Aesthetics

            Perhaps the aesthetic success of the MLK is that despite of its poor maintenance; the building retains its refutation as a historic site due to its aesthetic principles that had encouraged its appropriate preservation, rehabilitation, and adaptation in its entirety. Due to the building’s aesthetic value, Public library officials are considering several options for modernizing the building. MLK Director Molly Raphael pointed out that people are proud of this building in their downtown. Thus, Raphael favors a seventy-five to eighty million dollars major repair of the present Martin Luther King Memorial Library.  This repair would include the fifth floor as designed by Van der Rohe to have a clearer glass window from its original black, beige, and gray color scheme.

            Furthermore, another success of the aesthetic aspect of the building has something to do with its original furnishings, which was personally designed by van der Rohe. The original pieces of furniture that was valued, as state-of-the-art became classic and proven durable up to this time. The building narrowly survived a proposal to sell by just a single vote in the city council. This victory sealed its aesthetic success as historic preservation advocacy group nominated the building for a historic landmark status arguing that the building is an icon of the modern style of design. According to Tillman, the MLK library building belongs to a modern architecture and still a very good building.

The aesthetic failure of the Martin Luther King Memorial Library was the poor maintenance, which resulted to faulty environmental system and labyrinthine lay out that according to an article published by American library online entitled ‘DCPL Eyes Long-Overdue Main-Library Modernization,’ comprised operationally terrifying. According to the city Mayor, the MLK faces considerable structural problems, which includes the air-conditioning system that has been mal-functioning for years. The building also lacks the wiring that would facilitate computer networks such as broadband and the other perquisite to be necessary characteristics of a modern library. However, Mies argued that the building was built prior to the coming of the internet and contends that the criticism is unfair since the building can be updated or even renovated just like each other buildings built before the 1990.

Further aesthetic failure noted by the city mayor was that the building was depressing. Some observers noted that, Mies construction is a very incompetent building and that it is not worthy for a premium commercial price. An internet subscriber even commented that the building is inefficient and was very disgusting. However, it was obvious that all these comments were based on the building’s present condition, as a result of years of poor maintenance for the past thirty years.

Functionality of the building

            During its opening to the public the building was highly functional that many students and celebrity guests had been the frequent visitors of the library.  At the ground floor, it has spacious lobby with the mural of King that tells about his life and achievements.  Right at the middle left side area of the lobby are the circulations and information desks as well as computers for public access. The ground floor also contains the different sections for collections, information center, business collection and a store for gift items and used books.  The second floor houses the library for children and for the blinds and physically handicapped.  It also features the different collections according to area of concentration or subject matters. The third floor occupied the periodical section, the black studies, and literary resources division; while the fourth floor was home for the different administrative offices.  The below ground has two quarters, the level A has public access areas such as meeting rooms, auditorium, and restrooms, while the level B serves as the parking garage. The building has total of seven, traction of modern elevators; two, public commuter elevator; three, staff commuter elevators; and two, freight elevators for DC main library.

            Overall, the building could perform many functions however due to negligence and poor maintenance, many of its sections turned useless as many people found the build as many portions needed repair and the whole edifice was grossly left unmanaged.   The building, which supposedly to stand as monument of success of the civil rights struggle of Martin Luther King Jr. now stands idle

Durability of the Building

            Though the building was constructed with expectation to last for the next one hundred fifty years, the library was constructed with seemingly chances for breakage of internal components unlike the stone-pile building of the early 19th century.  Noticeably, the building has to be subjected to repair and maintenance to serve its purpose in the coming years. The latest appraisal of the building showed accounted damages that occurred in the building, however, the major smash up was primarily the HVAC and the A/C units that resulted to greater damage in many section of the building.

Four years after the building was built, there were complaints received from the library officials regarding the problems with the building’s heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning systems (HVAC), which is responsible in controlling temperature of medium to large buildings and offices having closed structure.  The HVAC system failed to provide constant temperature all through the building. June 1976, the library was closed because of the excessive heat due to the breakage of the building’s A/C units that caused the temperature to rise at ninety-four degrees.  Also, on November 4 of the same year, the library forced to close because of lack of heat while steam valve was re-located.

            The heating, ventilating, air-conditioning system was appropriate for the type and structure of the building however, its failure to function well caused disturbances brought by the temperature inside. The building’s design of glass resulted in intense temperature during summer and winter season especially when the equipments used to regulate the temperature broke down.  The building’s pneumatic tubes, dumb waiters, and a conveyor belt system did not function well in many years as noted by library staff and officials.   As a result of insufficient ventilation and sunlight and temperature, many of the materials and furnishings in the library were feared that might be destroyed. In general, the problem with the building was due to poor maintenance by the city officials and former director of the building despite its annual budget of $21 million as well as the engineering department of the building and not architectural problem.


            There can be no doubt that the architectural design of the building was excellent and represent the modern style of architecture. The fact the design was approved by the Fine Arts Commission means the building passed the standard of the modern styles. The defects and problems in the functionality of the structure may not be therefore attributed to the architectural design of the building. On the other hand, the architectural design of the MLK library using glass, still and nature inclined design with emphasis on space is an innovation in architecture that will be the trademark identified to Ludwig Van der Rohe. The significance of the building therefore is not on the value of the building it self-but in the deign innovation exemplified by the architect.


Work cited

Craven, Wayne (2003) American Art: History and Culture. US: McGraw Hill.

DCPL Eyes Long-Overdue Main Library Modernization. American Library Association. 2001.,

Alexander (2002). Martin Luther King, Jr. Library, 901 G Street, NW, Washington, D.C.

by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, 1972. The Recent Past Preservation Network.

The Martin Luther King Library in Washington, D.C. Education Portal.,_DC.html

Tillman, Zoe (June 20, 2007). A New Endangered Species: Modern Architecture. The Christian

Science Monitor.



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