Originally designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the structure’s new updates are a contemporary masterpiece just in time for MLK Day

The midcentury modernist design movement, which swept through the postwar U.S. between 1945 and 1969, is still one of the most revered styles today. From Charles and Ray Eames’s instantly recognizable leather lounge chair to John Lautner’s 1960 UFO-like Malin residence nestled within the Hollywood Hills, the creatives whose work shined especially bright during the movement are unparalleled. And one prolific visionary who helped shape the coveted midcentury style is German American Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. In fact, the last project he completed before his death in 1969 was Washington, D.C.’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, which just underwent a $210 million three-year renovation courtesy of Netherlands-based Mecanoo and New York firm OTJ Architects. The library, which originally opened in 1972, is finally ready for visitors to explore its freshly expanded and updated spaces.

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The team of architects installed a gently curved staircase that winds up the structure’s six stories.Photo: Robert Benson

Among its numerous new additions, there’s a rooftop event space and terrace, a double-height reading room, and a dramatic set of monumental stairs—perhaps the perfect Instagram-friendly backdrop to a day in the nation’s capital. Now is the time to pay the landmark structure a visit, and here are five reasons why.

Reading Is Only One of the Many Things to Do Here

Generally, libraries are simply massive structures whose sole purpose is to store books. That was definitely the case when the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library opened in the early 1970s. Now, however, reading is only one of quite a few things visitors can do here, courtesy of the new elements the architects installed. There’s an auditorium and conference center, a rooftop event space and terrace, dedicated exhibition spaces, a coworking area, a two-story reading room, a children’s room and playground-inspired slide, a café and patio, a creative lab for music production, and a dance studio. The only thing visitors can’t do is book a room and sleep there.

Richard Reyes-Gavilan, the executive director of the D.C. Public Library (DCPL), which oversees the city’s 26 libraries, says, “The District’s central library is a destination for residents, tourists, and anyone who is looking for any of a variety of services that may or may not be related to books.”

It’s Close to Everything—Including the Best Hotels

Luckily, the city is chock-full of stunning hotels, including the Dupont Circle Hotel, which also underwent an extensive renovation before reopening in October 2020. With interiors by celebrity designer Martin Brudnizki and Irish trailblazer Clodagh, who outfitted the hotel’s new nearly 3,000-square-foot penthouse suite and the lobby. The hotel also doubles as a gallery with an impressive art collection featuring the likes of Irish sculptor John Behan and American actor turned photographer Dennis Hopper.

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All of the Dupont Circle Hotel’s guest rooms boast sweeping views of the city below.Photo: The Dupont Circle Hotel

It’s the perfect spot to enjoy the city in a historic setting, surrounded by beautiful furniture, art, and, of course, food. The Pembroke, the hotel’s Brudnizki-designed restaurant, serves classic American fare such as roasted chicken and northern Atlantic halibut.

The Architecture Is on Point

It’s a Mies van der Rohe–designed building, so the architecture is bound to be eye-catching, but the library just took home the 2021 Richard H. Driehaus Foundation National Preservation Award for its fantastically executed renovation that celebrated the original architectural elements, and also for its masterful reconfiguration. For instance, on either side of the entrance, two classic yet contemporary curving staircases greet guests when they enter the building. They’re not only beautiful to look at, but they also encourage exploration in a way that traditional staircases don’t.

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Wanting to pay homage to the original architecture, Mecanoo and OTJ Architects gave the façade a classic midcentury look.Photo: Robert Benson

Reyes-Gavilan admits, “The modernized library has provided residents an inspiring downtown learning and gathering destination that did not exist in the previous building. It is a particular point of pride for residents who see the building as the most important cultural center in the building designed primarily for the use of District residents.” Not to mention, the architects took a slightly different approach when it came to designing the new elements. Their subtle curves directly contrast the sharp lines that Mies van der Rohe introduced back in the ’70s. However, those sometimes harsh angles were typical of the minimalist design movement.

Historical References Are Hiding in Nearly Every Nook and Cranny

There may be a lot of new elements to look at here, but the original architectural details aren’t gone. In fact, the architects honored the building’s original design in more ways than one. For instance, the original yellow brick and the massive Martin Luther King Jr. mural are still hallmarks of the historic building’s lobby. “The new library honors Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in ways the prerenovated building never did. Its programmatic focus on dignity, equity, and concepts such as social justice and D.C. statehood were passions of Dr. King and therefore crucial to the building’s success,” Reyes-Gavilan notes.

One Million Guests Will Be Flocking to the Library Every Year

Reyes-Gavilan expects there to be a whirlwind of guests sweeping through the library every day and at least a million annually. The fact that it’s only a mile from the White House certainly won’t hurt. Even before the renovation, the library welcomed 600,000 visitors annually.