Recently, the Hyattsville Branch Library was added to the 2014 Endangered Maryland Annual List. The building is a relic of the 1960’s “space race” and is known for its iconic “flying saucer” pavilion over the Adelphi Road entrance. The library opened in 1964 and was the first library in Prince George’s County, Maryland. The library’s architectural theme reflected not only the space exploration mania of the time but also a very metaphorical broadening of horizons for the area; Prince George’s County was for many years an area of both significant racial tension and extremely low literacy rates. The library was dedicated to John F. Kennedy, a champion for civil rights, and the architect’s family recalls that Dennis Madden was at least in part chosen because he had a racially diverse staff at his firm.
The library is sorely in need of rehabilitation, and has been slated for renewal since the early 1990’s. For multiple and varying reasons, the funds have never been available and the project has been on hold until recently. Currently, the library’s continued operation is significantly impaired by leaks, outdated and insufficient mechanical systems, and a plan that does not allow for functional use or staffing. The exterior brick and concrete is dingy, the roof leaks, and interior lighting is woefully dim- not to mention the major access restrictions for special-needs patrons or the frustratingly inadequate staff office area.
Prince George’s County has recently made funding available for a new library, projected to cost around $11 million dollars. The firm of Grimm + Parker has been selected to complete plans, and the library system’s spokespeople have made it clear that renovation of the existing library is not under consideration. This has caused a sustained and vocal opposition from the community and many are concerned that demolishing the historic library would not only remove a piece of Hyattsville’s area history, but would also destroy a striking example of mid-century modern architecture.
The library has many many issues, but the plans for demolition are poorly considered. The proposed designs presented at community meetings would cost, as mentioned, in excess of $11 million. A renovation on a similar library in nearby Howard County, Maryland cost around $5 million, though a representative from Grimm + Parker states (without any verifiable justification) that “any money saved in building costs would be spent over time in increased programmatic and staffing costs”. The new building is also projected to be approximately 35,000 square feet in size, including staff areas- roughly half the size of the current library in a community that has seen its population grow dramatically over the past several years.
Many MCM (mid-century modern for the real arch-geeks) buildings are currently in danger, victims of the fashion police, changing ideas of space and organization, or the appalling tendency of reinforced concrete to crumble without proper maintenance. (What would the Romans say about that?) Among major buildings currently under threat are DC”s own J. Edgar Hoover FBI Headquarters, Mies van der Rohe’s MLK Library, and Baltimore’s Mechanics Theater. Now lost is the (really freakin’ cool, but well yeah, ugly) Brutalist Third Church of Christ Scientist on 16th and I NW.
Twenty or thirty years ago, we were losing Art Deco buildings by the score until we figured out that ooh! Many Art Deco buildings are really priceless works of art, as well as iconic images of the zeitgeist of their time. All you ’90’s babies remember how you raided your parents’ closets for bell-bottom jeans during the flower-power revival- I guarantee you that at some point around 2020 your kids will be raiding your closet trying to look like Drew Barrymore in Never Been Kissed. Every style goes from chic to outre and back again with the added cachet of vintage.
The point being- buildings should be considered for preservation on their historical merit. The Department of the Interior Standards ask us to be objective in determining preservation value: What does a building mean to a community? Does the building represent a singular example of its type? Does it have associations with historically important individuals or events?
The Hyattsville Library needs work- no argument there. But beautiful things are possible with a little imagination (pay attention, Grimm + Parker) and the library could continue to be a functional, valued part of the community. The light is terrible- so clean the windows, remove the dropped acoustical tiles and outdated systems to raise the ceiling height, install new energy-efficient lighting trays, and maybe add some thoughtfully placed additional windows on non-primary elevations. Nothing is code compliant?- widen doorways, add conduit with outlets and communications wiring in strategic areas, figure out how to alter the space plan or stairwell to accommodate improved access. The roof leaks and the systems suck- so replace them! (in kind) It’s not rocket science- pun intended.
If the community values the library and it is clearly recognized as a local landmark, every reasonable effort should be made to preserve it. I hear you, library staff, when you say it’s impossible to live with in its current state. But remember, they said the same thing about Mount Vernon and the Capitol and oh, yes, the White House. All were subjected to careful renovations and will continue as symbols of their community and their time. And before you say it, yes! LEED is possible in historic buildings with some creativity and dedicated effort.
Save the library as a statement. Take a stand to say that history is valuable and new is not always better. Any decision to destroy a piece of history must be a thoughtful, carefully considered, and exhaustive process that reaches a deeply regretted, necessary conclusion. Hyattsville’s need for a functional, useful library doesn’t have to end that way.
PS- If the National Trust feels the need to take a stand with a blog post strongly protesting demolition, that’s a signal to pay attention, ahem PG County!
PPS- If you’d like to be involved, check out the pro-preservation group Save Our Saucer – they’re working hard to raise awareness and educate the public about the library’s value.