A rendering of the Carnegie Library in Washington, D.C., in its future use as an Apple Store. Apple

We should liberalize our notion of what constitutes an acceptable reuse strategy for grand-dame civic buildings.

Washington D.C. recently announced plans to lease the Carnegie Library, a landmarked Beaux-Arts building built in 1903, to Apple for a new flagship retail store. Many have applauded the proposal, which will finally bring an active and functional use to a historic building that has long been underutilized, and which sits in Mt. Vernon Square, between the city’s convention center and trendy Shaw neighborhood, and the downtown retail and entertainment core. But the prospect of “losing” the former library to a corporate tenant has also been met with criticism—most prominently on this site, where CityLab’s Kriston Capps pleads that a site as grand as the Carnegie “deserves a public use,” ideally as an arts venue, not as a “gadget store.”  

I get it. The building is old and ornate, and there’s some dissonance in imagining it as a place to purchase goods—though Apple has also emphasized their plan to host free daily classes on topics ranging from coding to photography. Like so many around the world, I grew up understanding that white-pilastered buildings like this one hosted quiet stacks of books or galleries of gold-framed paintings and dinosaur bones. They were built to elevate and highlight the gravity of their contents. In comparatively young America, classical buildings showed us, and the rest of the world, that our republic, institutions, and culture could match or exceed those found elsewhere. We mattered. And people like Andrew Carnegie invested in that belief for the betterment of our cities.

But along the way, tastes, technologies, and space needs changed. Nationwide, we’ve seen the departure of libraries, banks, and post offices from these types of buildings. We have also seen cultural institutions take root in non-traditional spaces—in old factories, in abandoned shops on small-town main streets, and in gleaming, contemporary, attention-seeking forms meant to inject fresh life and draw new audiences to their collections and performances inside. In a world where office, educational, and industrial buildings are being repurposed for residential use, where old subway tunnels host fashion shows, and where the hottest public parks are on urban highways and elevated railroads, it’s time to also liberalize our notion of what constitutes an acceptable reuse strategy for grand-dame civic buildings like the Carnegie library.

The primary arguments in Capps’s piece are that D.C. shouldn’t lease an asset like Carnegie to a corporate user—even if the use is a public retail store—because Apple can locate anywhere else downtown, and the city still has an unmet appetite for art space. Both are fair points. An Apple store could, feasibly, go somewhere else. Most developers would go out of their way to customize a ground floor or more for Apple as a tenant, and Apple can pay top dollar for the best retail space around. So why not deny Apple this particular market-rate lease in the hopes that someone else find a use for Carnegie?

The library has been functionally empty for 45 years. Home to the city’s historical society and rentable (at a high price) for private events, modern users haven’t made this historically designated building work because, without additions and a redesigned interior, it’s a tough, tight space to program. Its last suitor before Apple was the International Spy Museum, whose proposed adaptation was turned down during historic preservation review.

Would it be nice to see a thriving, economically feasible arts user in this building, lines of eager culture-goers stretched around the park? To some, maybe. But why is that our ideal? Because we’ve grown accustomed to certain expectations for fancy old buildings? History and example show us that cultural institutions can be old, new, ornate, or plain. Boxing this old building, which has the power to connect two of the city’s burgeoning retail zones, into an outdated narrative is likely one of the reasons it’s been underutilized for so long.

D.C. may well need more arts space, and it could certainly do a better job being transparent about its property disposition and leasing strategies. But what the old Carnegie library requires now is a tenant with the means to restore and respect the building, and that can make the economics of sensitively adapting it to modern use work. In the last several decades no arts group has materialized to make those things happen. Who has now? Apple. And it’s a tenant with an extendable ten-year, market-rate lease that should be celebrated.

It’s also a company that has a legitimate claim on such a structure. Whether we admit it or not, our culture is infinitely less defined by singular pieces on a wall, no matter how magnificent, than by what we hold in our hands. Consider the selfie-taker, the Instagram-editor, the Snapchat-filterer: The most creative tool of self-expression most people use is the device that Apple and its competitors sell. There is a veiled intellectual elitism to proposing that our functional interactions with these “gadgets” somehow don’t deserve a culturally significant building.

If you walk by the old Carnegie library today, what you’ll see is a grand edifice, tired from an absence of meaningful use, and shadowed both by the large trees of the empty urban square that surrounds it and the old signage, sculptures, and uninspired entry additions that never quite drew a crowd. If you’re lucky, you’ve been to an event inside, but if not, the building is just there—an architectural tombstone, economically inhibited by its own grandeur.

Now picture an Apple Store: teeming with customers and employees amid the minimalist furniture and white walls of a polished, landmarked interior. Adaptive reuse of old and historic buildings is increasingly part of the brand’s aesthetic: In Los Angeles, Berlin, Paris, London, Amsterdam, Geneva, Sydney, and in smaller main street markets around the country, Apple has taken space in old movie houses, theaters, and banks. In New York City, the New York Landmarks Conservancy awarded Apple their Chairman’s Award for the company’s “contribution to preserving, restoring, and repurposing notable historic structures.”

Other commercial tenants similarly crave the authenticity of older buildings. This spring, Nike opened their Moscow flagship in a restored 1903 Art Nouveau building. Luxury hoteliers are snapping up in significant former commercial, civic, and religious buildings; the Hotel Monaco’s D.C. and Baltimore flags are both housed in lightly adapted Beaux-Arts buildings, while the soon-to-open Line Hotel in D.C.’s Adams Morgan neighborhood repurposes the neoclassical First Church of Christ. Another local landmark plagued by decades of poorly executed concepts and disuse, the Romanesque Revival building once known as the Old Post Office, has found a new (if controversial) life as D.C.’s Trump International Hotel.

A more modern kind of civic landmark—the Broad Museum in downtown Los Angeles. (Richard Vogel/AP)

Meanwhile, the civic and cultural users who served as the original tenants of these grand buildings have escaped the socio-historical need for classical settings and have decamped for newer or less traditional ones. In greater Philadelphia, the Barnes Foundation moved moved their collection from their long-held Italianate building to a new one downtown. In Los Angeles, Eli Broad commissioned Diller Scofidio + Renfro to design his new contemporary art museum adjacent to Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall. L.A.’s even newer art sensation, The 14th Factory, is housed in a three-acre warehouse cornered by freeways on the edge of downtown. Cape Town’s Museum of Contemporary Art Africa will open this fall in a cluster of former grain silos; London’s iconic Tate Modern inhabits the former Bankside Power Station. Though never conceived for cultural uses, these buildings have been brought to life for a new generation by them.

The Carnegie, like so many prominent old civic buildings around the world, deserves an activating use. Fortunately, as a designated historic structure, it will be around long after Apple’s lease. Should the demand, feasibility, and desire exist, an arts organization may yet lease it down the road. Until then, I stand with the many others excited to see its long-awaited rebirth as a bright, accessible, community-serving, culture-shaping, and yes, public space.

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