Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
The city has converted a cultural gem entrusted to the entire city into an exclusive outlet that serves only the few.
When Apple opens the doors to its new retail outlet in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, people will finally get a chance to see what the company has done with one of the District’s cultural gems. The world’s wealthiest company is moving into a Beaux-Arts building in a downtown urban park that once housed a Carnegie Library.
Among the new features that customers will find is the Forum, a double-height atrium in this newly restored project. The Forum will host Today at Apple, which offers Apple users tips and training on the company’s increasingly essential suite of productivity and creativity tools, from taking better photos on iPhones to making music on GarageBand.
For Apple fanatics in D.C., the Apple Carnegie Library is a win. Consumers are bound to appreciate the convenience of a downtown store even if they never take in the corporate programming.
It’s a plus for others as well. Apple fronted the cost for a renovation of the former Carnegie Library building, a boon for its preservation. Apple built a new home for the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., the longtime tenant of the building. And an Apple store makes a great neighbor for the Convention Center next door.
Yet for the city, the Apple Carnegie Library represents a failure of imagination. By leasing the Carnegie Library building to Apple, the city has turned over a prominent cultural asset to an exclusive use: a tech enclave whose products are out of reach for many residents. And not just the 1903 marble building, but also several acres of urban park in the form of Mt. Vernon Square. The arguments in favor of the Apple Carnegie Library don’t justify what should always be an option of last resort—the privatization of public space.
As locals will note, the Carnegie Library building has gone underused for years. It served as the city’s public library until 1970, when the collection was moved to the Mies van der Rohe–designed Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. For years afterward, it served as more or less a party event space, until the Historical Society struck a fantastic deal for its long-term future. Monica Scott Beckham, a trustee, argued for and won a federal appropriation that mandated a rent-free, 99-year lease with the city.
“We are in fact about the only world capital among the group of eight that does to [sic] have such a city museum,” Beckham testified before a House committee in 1999. “Major cities across the Nation have just invested in city museums.”
So in 2003, the Historical Society reemerged as the City Museum of Washington, D.C., in a newly renovated Carnegie Library building. Despite the helping hand from Congress, the venture was short lived: The City Museum closed its doors in October 2004. Since then, the Carnegie Library building has never been an entirely idle site. The Washington Post’s Jonathan O’Connell has documented the many ill-fated projects proposed for the building: a music museum, a visitors center, even an expansion of the International Spy Museum.
Over all the recent twists and turns, the Historical Society—which is home to some 4,000 maps, photographs, paintings, and other local artifacts—has held fast as a tenant. However, tax records show that the organization has struggled, operating in the red despite its rent-free status. (Apple’s arrival hasn’t altered the organization’s 99-year lease for $99.)
What has changed dramatically between 1999 and 2019 is the city itself. When the City Museum first opened, downtown D.C. had not yet emerged from decades of disinvestment. The MCI Center, now known as Capital One Arena, a development that marked a turning point in downtown’s fortunes, had only just opened in 1997. The stalled status of various concepts for the Carnegie Library must be squared with urban distress and also the financial crisis—which largely spared the District but still gummed up capital for years.
Today, the city is on strong financial footing. Arguably, there has never been a better time to do the work to organize a cultural anchor for downtown D.C. To say that nothing works in the Carnegie Library is to risk falling into a sunk cost fallacy—to fail to factor for the context of the crack epidemic or the Great Recession. The city today is not what it was 20 years ago, for better and for worse.
Changing headwinds have ushered unprecedented investments to downtown. The arrival of CityCenterDC brought with it a class of luxury tenants such as Gucci and Tesla. (The development even included a bay designed specifically to lure Apple.) EventsDC, the owner of the nearby Walter E. Washington Convention Center, has tried different strategies to elevate the convention center property’s profile as a commercial anchor. For example, the agency hired the architecture and landscape firms OMA and OLIN to devise a total makeover, with proposed improvements to the exterior facade and streetscape meant to bring in new commercial tenants.
Elsewhere, EventsDC is planning a new vision for the 190-acre parcel surrounding the disused Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, one that could give rise to an entire district of arenas, stadiums, and entertainment facilities (the agency’s purview). As for downtown, landing Apple in the Carnegie Library building—the convention center’s next-door neighbor to the south—is a massive boon to EventsDC’s interests in upgrading the convention center. These plans may serve EventsDC better than they serve the District.
Other ideas for the Carnegie site were always feasible. In recent years, the city has juggled competing cultural proposals for another historic building, the Adolf Cluss–designed Franklin School. A plan by a prominent local businessman and developer to turn it into a contemporary art kunsthalle was signed by Mayor Vincent Gray. But when Mayor Muriel Bowser arrived in office in 2015, she quickly scrapped that agreement, opening up the building to proposals to repurpose it as a tech hub or a boutique luxury hotel.
“Despite her campaign promise to celebrate and foster the ‘creative economy,’ only money matters; despite her commitment to find private partners to help the city’s children learn about the arts, she scorns one of the best proposals in years to do just that,” wrote Philip Kennicott, critic for The Washington Post, at the time. “Why? Because the city thinks it can harvest more money by turning the Franklin School over to commercial developers.”
In the end, the city signed a lease for a museum of linguistics at the Franklin School (a decision that has wrecked the building’s historic interiors, but no matter). One takeaway from this capricious episode: Philanthropists are willing to do the capital fundraising and board development work necessary to keep cultural assets public.
But cultural philanthropists have rarely had a strong partner in the city. Mayor Vincent Gray did nothing when trustees for the Corcoran Gallery of Art proposed to sell the building and move the museum to Alexandria, Virginia; the museum ultimately failed on his watch, despite pitches from both a local university and a private philanthropist to preserve it as a museum. (He never called so much as a meeting.) A cavalier attitude toward local culture stretches back years: Back in the early 2000s, Mayor Anthony Williams made a push to convert the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library into a Bloomingdale’s. (In a presentation that featured a rendering of the building painted white, the mayor claimed the library could not be wired for wifi.) Even now, Bowser has introduced a new Cultural Plan that converts millions of dollars in grants for artists into loans.
It’s true that Apple upgraded the library building to convert it into a store, reportedly spending upward of $30 million on a renovation by Foster + Partners. That’s definitely not nothing. But it’s less than Apple might have paid to build a striking structure outright. And the urban park that Apple commands in Mt. Vernon Square is priceless, of course. To say that the Apple Carnegie Library is the best possible outcome requires a sort of tunnel vision. Apple could have parked a store in nearby CityCenterDC, while the city might have at least considered a process to find a way to preserve a public function for the library.
If Tim Cook were a philanthropist of the likes of Andrew Carnegie, then the company might have renovated the library for the city. Carnegie built some 1,700 public libraries at a cost of about $1.3 billion—an act of industrial whitewashing, for sure, but one that also transformed society. Apple is doing something like the reverse, scouring the world for historic sites to convert into retail outlets, from Melbourne to Madrid, on the flimsy premise that hosting classes on editing in iMovie constitutes culture. The world needs a better class of robber barons.
The District needs leaders who are better attuned to the city’s cultural needs. Yes, D.C. got a free renovation for the Carnegie Library, but maintenance is the city’s obligation, and privatizing cultural centers to save them in not a sustainable path. Yes, the Historical Society has a stronger footing now, but a different partner might have done the same in a space that, after all, doesn’t cost the city anything. An Apple store with history exhibits upstairs is a far cry from, say, the Museum of the City of New York—an institution that hosts exhibits but also serves as a center for local activism, labor, politics, faith, and more.
Over the last few weeks, the city has witnessed block-party-style protests in response to a local cultural crisis. It started in April, when a resident of a new luxury apartment building threatened a lawsuit against a local cellphone store that broadcasts the city’s signature “go-go” funk sound on outdoor loudspeakers. This neighborhood tempest-in-a-teapot quickly spiraled into a microcosm for the existential threats of displacement that longtime residents face.
The Apple Carnegie Library is the other side of that coin. The city has converted a cultural gem entrusted to the entire city into an exclusive outlet that serves only the few. Let’s call a spade a spade: The city’s historic public Carnegie Library is now a cellphone store.