Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
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.
The Carnegie Library has been more or less closed since 1970, when the Washington Public Library made way for a larger central library a few blocks away. For decades, any prominent function for the Beaux-Arts building was unthinkable, as crime, prostitution, and open-air drug markets were the only flourishing activities downtown. The Historical Society of Washington, D.C., made the building its home in 1999, and it opened a City Museum in 2003 that closed just two years later. It’s been a refrain in the District ever since: Someone should do something with this building.
Once derelict and dangerous, today’s downtown is a perfect fit for an Apple store. Mount Vernon Square is a block away from condos designed by Norman Foster, a Tesla showroom, Hermès and Gucci outlets, and a Momofuku. Those are all part of CityCenterDC, a massive, $1 billion multi-use mega-development that opened in 2015. CityCenterDC is the brand-new epicenter of ostentatious luxury in D.C.—a city that only a few years ago was struggling to get by.
Apple is such a perfect fit for CityCenterDC, in fact, that an Apple store was believed to be a given for the project. But Apple pulled out of contention for the high-end, gleaming retail spaces three years ago. The company, like D.C.’s downtown, has changed. These days, Apple no longer builds “stores” at all.
As Jonathan O’Connell details in The Washington Post, the company envisions the former Carnegie Library as a place for crafting experiences. The brains at Apple didn’t build a company valued at $800 billion by ignoring the spending habits of young consumers, after all. Today’s experience economy is yesterday’s product design. The core to Apple’s next era of success is selling not just Apple Watches, but a lifestyle to go with them. (Experience may also be key to outlasting the growing retail apocalypse.)
“The Apple ideology is sleek and clean,” writes D.C.’s own rock-and-roll impresario Ian Svenonius, in a 2014 essay on experience über alles for Jacobin. “It proposes a lifestyle without attachments or clutter, where people—unburdened by the ‘fuzz’ of possessions—are free to chase down every desire. Like a nomad on the Steppe, movement, horizon, and conquest are the only concern.”
With its new stores, as O’Connell explains in the Post, the company means to build “places for concerts, art exhibitions and photography classes”—not just for waiting in line to deal with a cracked screen on an iPhone. Apple Mount Vernon Square will still sell all the gadgets, of course. The two main differences between it and the existing Georgetown location are architecture and expectations. Apple means to leverage the one to build the other. The company’s pitch is a tell.
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.
Apple Union Square was the first to feature new in-store design elements such as a tree-lined “genius grove.” Essentially, it’s a physical rebrand of the merciless capitalist exchange that defines a visit to a traditional Apple store. However, a closer look at Apple’s experience stores shows a dearth of honest-to-goodness experiences—notwithstanding the “Art of Beatmaking” workshop led by RZA (!) at Apple Williamsburg last fall. Upcoming store events for the Brooklyn and San Francisco locations include “Studio Hours: Music Projects” (led by in-house “Creatives”), “Stay Fit with Apple Watch,” “iPhone Photography,” and similarly deflating offerings.
No doubt, D.C. has a ton to gain from a downtown Apple. Even if hotshot D.C. rapper Jefe (formerly known as Shy Glizzy) never graces its customers with an in-store performance, a downtown Apple store is a virtually peerless promise of a sales-tax bonanza. Long waits at Apple’s transit-inaccessible Georgetown location, even with nearby outlets in suburban Virginia and Maryland, guarantee demand for another Apple location in the city proper.
But the District should rethink its decision to give one of its most important cultural assets to Apple. The opportunity cost is high. Apple could slot its store into CityCenterDC—or literally anywhere else, the same as every other retailer—but D.C. cannot easily acquire new urban parks or build new Beaux-Arts amenities. Only Apple’s ludicrous corporate vanity demands its building be a turn-of-the-century public treasure.
If experience is what’s in demand—and if a Carnegie Library building would drive experience—then maybe the District would be better off thinking about the kind of partner that would simply facilitate the best experiences. That’s an urgent question in D.C., where cultural production lags behind the city’s retail and restaurant sectors. The city is currently drafting the D.C. Cultural Plan, a strategic document for maintaining and bolstering arts, culture, and humanities programs in the city. It comes after some severe setbacks. The less said about the failure of trustees at the Corcoran Gallery of Art to keep that local museum intact, the better.
Recent moves by the D.C. government have undercut the city’s nascent plan. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser turned heads in 2015 when she bailed on an agreement struck by her predecessor to turn the languishing Franklin School downtown into a contemporary arts venue known as the Institute for Contemporary Expression. The city sought a more lucrative use for this historic building, like a boutique hotel or a tech startup. But the Franklin School’s intense preservation requirements, especially for the building’s interior, virtually mandated a cultural use with a light touch. (Fortunately, the city settled on a plan to turn the Franklin School into a museum of linguistics.)
Giving the Carnegie Library to Apple, under the flimsy premise that Apple is somehow a cultural organization, ignores the enormous appetite for authentic art experiences in the District. A bevy of spectacle-scale art exhibitions shows just how profound this demand is. “Wonder” at the Renwick Gallery; a suite of summer blockbusters at the National Building Museum (“Icebergs,” “The Beach,” and “The Maze”); and above all, Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Mirrors” at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden—all of them showcase the homegrown demand for ‘gram-worthy destination events.
Perhaps the National Mall is enough to meet this thirst. (Locally, the Institute of Contemporary Expression promised exactly this sort of programming, before Mayor Bowser scuppered the deal.) But a local treasure like the Carnegie Library demands to be put to public use—not dedicated to Apple shareholders or relegated to the ”Privilege Card”–carrying residents of CityCenterDC.
Arts organizations can’t compete in D.C.’s real-estate market. At the end of the day, the city could get a second Apple store and a homegrown cultural center, answering the demand for Insta-artworks and the iPhones with which to photograph them. Or whatever: Something worthy should benefit from the massive public subsidy of the Carnegie Library and its attendant urban park. An Apple store can go anywhere else.
While the Carnegie Library has sat underused for years, dreams for this building only left the realm of fantasy very recently. Gadget store can’t be the best possible use—not in the District. In some smaller towns, former Carnegie Library buildings have been repurposed as restaurants and bars, but most cities with the means have found a higher calling for them. And D.C. is now a city with means.
To dream big for the Carnegie Library, cultural organizations need a more creative partner than EventsDC, the quasi-public agency that manages the building. Across town, EventsDC is responsible for the redevelopment of the largest parcel in the city: the 190-acre campus surround the soon-to-be-disused Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium. EventsDC’s mandate is narrow. It can use the campus only for stadium and entertainment facilities. That limits the scope of what ought to be a huge step toward solving the city’s severe deficit of affordable housing.
Just imagine what the Carnegie Library could be. The city should now pause to ask the question. Perhaps not the home of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., the library’s part-time steward for the last umpteen years. Certainly not the International Spy Museum, which proposed building vast levels underneath and ill-fitting wings alongside the building. What about a museum of video art? An adjunct space for photography from the Smithsonian Institution? A cross-cultural space for the city’s universities?
Or, sure, an Apple Store. As far as titans of industry go, Tim Cook is a far cry from his predecessors. At least Andrew Carnegie gave the city something. Apple seeks to take it away.