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After two years of renovations, the historic Carnegie Library in Mount Vernon Square will reopen May 11 as Apple’s newest flagship store and event space. The 1903 building will also house the D.C. History Center — a project of the Historical Society of Washington, which includes three exhibit galleries showcasing local artifacts and holdings (among them the 4,000-piece Kiplinger collection of Washingtoniana).
So, what does it mean when a big company partners with a historic entity? We’ll discuss with a local reporter and a representative from D.C.’s historical society.
Produced by Julie Depenbrock
- John Suau Executive Director, Historical Society of Washington, D.C.
- Jonathan O'Connell Reporter, The Washington Post; @OConnellPostbiz
Apple Store Opening At Carnegie Library
Its new tenants mark yet another chapter in the building's 116-year history.
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. Later in the broadcast we'll be hearing from Say Solos. He's a local R&B performer who has signed on to enter the NPR Music Desk's Tiny Desk Contest. We'll hear his unique brand of rhythm and blues later.
KOJO NNAMDIBut first after two years of renovations the historic Carnegie Library in Mount Vernon Square will reopen Saturday as Apple's newest flagship store and event space. The 1903 building will also house the D.C. History Center, a project of the Historical Society of Washington, which includes three exhibit galleries showcasing local artifacts and holdings among them the 4,000 piece Kiplinger collection of Washingtoniana. So what does it mean when a historic entity partners with a very powerful company? Joining me in studio is John Suau. He is the executive director of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. John, thank you for joining us.
JOHN SUAUIt's my pleasure, Kojo. Thanks for having me.
NNAMDIAnd joining us from studios at The Washington Post is Jonathan O'Connell. He is a reporter for The Washington Post focused on economic development, corporate accountability in the Trump Organization. Jonathan, thank you for joining us.
JONATHAN O'CONNELLHello, Kojo.
NNAMDIJonathan, for listeners who may not know, I'm wondering if you can give us an overview. What exactly is a tech company like Apple doing with the Carnegie Library?
O'CONNELLGosh, great question. You know, so for anybody who knows the building, it's just south of the convention center there. Again, it's a beautiful marble building dating I think you said 1903, but hasn't really found a modern use in quite a long time. You know, people who were -- some people may remember the D.C. City Museum, which opened for a very brief time period in like the 2003, 2004 range. Just never really, you know, caught the support of people. And it was a paying museum, which made it difficult. So that failed quickly. And then there was an idea to make it a music museum there. I don't know if people remember that effort, but that never even opened.
O'CONNELLAnd then, you know, of course, the Historical Society has been there all this time. But there hasn't been something to draw crowds there to allow people to enjoy the building. And, you know, the most recent effort was to put the spy museum there. And, you know, a number of different officials spent a lot of time trying to get the spy museum to be able to fit its full collections in that building with a bunch of expansions around the Carnegie building.
O'CONNELLAnd it didn't happen. So here's where we are. We have an Apple store coming now.
NNAMDISo is this really going to be an Apple store? What have you learned about this in your reporting about what this flagship store is going to do?
O'CONNELLWell, of course, the Historical Society will still be there. And, of course, there will be the D.C. History Center, which I'm sure John will talk more about. Yes, this will definitely be an Apple store. You can go there. You can get your phone upgraded. You can get your iPad repaired. You can learn all about the different apps that Apple offers.
O'CONNELLBut it's also -- Apple says anyway, going to be a place where you can -- you know, that's more just kind of open to the public, a sort of third place, not necessarily a public building, not necessarily just a store, but something sort of more than that. People think of, you know, book stores and coffee shops this way sometimes. Where it's a place where you can go and have meetings and see people and not necessarily buy something. But I do empathize with people on sort of both sides of this, people who think this is really kind of a corporate encroachment on civic life, and other people, who think, well, thank goodness we have the building open and renovated again.
NNAMDIJonathan, how much did Apple shell out for this renovation and what did the renovation entail?
O'CONNELLWell, Apple would not tell me. Thankfully we did get some information about this. I think the best estimate is really -- the best estimates I have heard are all over $30 million, which if you think about just what an enormous amount of money that is, you know, the building does need to be upgraded. It needed to be repaired. It needs to be maintained. Now a lot of the upgrades that Apple spent money on here are upgrades that will stay with the building whether or not Apple is there in the future.
O'CONNELLSome of the upgrades, of course, include putting Apple logos on there and building up the Apple store and parts of the buildings, which are not parts that would stay with the building if Apple is ever not in the building. Apple has a 10 year lease with a couple of options on the end of it. So, you know, I think everybody involved is hoping that Apple, you know, remains there for a while. But that's an enormous investment in the building that will persist and the building -- you know, the building will benefit from whether or not Apple is there in 30 or 50 years.
NNAMDIAs I said, we're joined in studio by John Suau. He is the Executive Director of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. John, the new Apple Carnegie Library will also be home to the D.C. History Center. You've talked about this space serving as an intersection of technology and the humanity. What are you hoping to see when the unveiling takes place?
SUAUA lot of local people enjoying D.C. history like they haven't before, we're really excited about the exhibits that we've created. The space is really a reinvention of the Carnegie Library with an emphasis on restoration. So a lot of the space is going to look as closely as it could possibly look when it opened in 1903. We'll be on the second floor with two exhibit spaces. One is called "The D.C. Hall of History," which features an orientation to the D.C. History Center as well as to the collections that we hold entrusted to the Historical Society.
SUAUWe're celebrating our 125th Anniversary this month. May 3rd, 1894, we were founded. We also have a rotating exhibit that will be on display for a couple of years at least called "The Big Picture." It draws upon a collection of over 3500 panoramic images. And we're presenting over 70 of these images in various formats including digital as well as analog versions of those photographs. We also are opening a new D.C. History Center Store and we've partnered with Shop Made in D.C. to include a lot of the local makers and artisans that are creating products in Washington D.C.
SUAUOur focus is really on not only highlighting the history of Washington D.C. with our collections, but also looking at contemporary Washington D.C. Much like the group of 34 men and women in 1894, who founded the Historical Society, we are concerned about the rapidly charging built environment and city that's happening today. We are striving to document what's going on in Washington right now for future generations. We want to see the Historical Society 125 years from now also presenting a rich history of Washington including what's happening today.
NNAMDITell us a little bit more about the Kiplinger collection of Washingtoniana.
SUAUIt's the largest collection of Washingtoniana that was on loan to us and only recently as of, I believe, February of this year, we actually got the collection deeded over to us officially. It will be -- it includes photographs, paintings, maps, all kinds of ephemera. So it's a very rich collection that was started by the Kiplinger family three generations ago. And it was -- primarily they were collecting art to decorate the walls of the Kiplinger building. Only recently, as I said, they have deeded the collection over to us and it will be used by researchers and scholars.
NNAMDIOn to the phones. Here's Omar in Fairfax County, Virginia. Omar, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
OMARHi, Kojo. I'm also calling in to sort of talk about Carnegie Library. I'm actually an employee of one of the local Apple stores here in the northern Virginia area. And I was fortunate enough to work on the team that actually began to open up Carnegie Library. And to your guests' points, you know, Apple has always sort of advertised itself as the intersection of the arts and technology. And I feel like that Carnegie Library is kind of the, you know, the end all be all of that with the fact that it's, you know, it's a beautiful beautiful building that's been renovated by Apple and giving the opportunity to sort of push all of D.C. history on anyone, who comes in.
OMARBecause as you enter through the main doors you are in this beautiful space and you sort of just see this building from the early 1900s and it kind of just looks like you're stepping back into time. And being able to partner with the D.C. History Center, all you have to do is go either upstairs or down the stairs and there's this plethora of history that Apple has sort of just made sure to shine a spotlight on.
OMARAnd not take away from the history of that building.
NNAMDII'm glad you're sharing that with us because, John Suau, I guess this is what excites you.
SUAUIt does. Yeah. The exposure. You know, we -- prior to Apple we would see anywhere between 30,000 and 40,000 people a year. And now with Apple in the building we anticipate those numbers to be 30 to 40,000 per week. So we certainly don't anticipate that every Apple user is going to come upstairs to explore the D.C. History Center. But if we get a small percentage of the people coming in to the building per week our exposure is going to multiply exponentially.
NNAMDICan you give us a bit of background on the history of the Carnegie Library? It's definitely a building that has been through its share of ups and downs.
SUAUYeah. It served as the D.C. Public Library for almost -- it's a little bit shy of 70 years. So it opened in 1903. It was the first fully integrated public building in Washington D.C. And Andrew Carnegie was quite pleased that it was within walking distance of both an African American school as well as a Caucasian school were both races were going to be able to use the facility for research. It was for the first 11 years called The Washington Public Library because it was the only branch.
SUAUOnce they started to open branch libraries it became the central public library. And then in 1972 when the MLK Library was built, they vacated that property. There was a short period I think in the 50s where the Historical Society actually housed our collections in the Carnegie Library with the D.C. Public Library, but as they were pressed for space for their own collections, we had to relocate.
NNAMDIHow did this partnership between Apple and the D.C. History Center come about?
SUAUWell, it's about three years ago that I had some knowledge that someone was looking at the building for a project, because they were actually using the Kiplinger research library to research the history of the building. So I said, somebody is looking at the building for something. And it was couple of weeks later that we were asked to go to lunch with some officials from Apple and they presented us the plans. We had recently just been looking at the original floorplans of the building. And when Apple sort of presented what their plan was for the building, it was remarkable how similar the plans looked to the original plans of the building.
SUAUIt took us a while to get to a place where we could figure out exactly how we could make both endeavors fit in the building and have a cohesive function. But I think with the restoration, the building is going to be absolutely gorgeous for the visitor. And the refreshed look of the historical society's presence in the building is also going to be quite a surprise for everybody that's coming to visit.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation about Apple and the Carnegie Library. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about Apple coming to the Carnegie Library and collaborating with the Historical Society of Washington D.C. to have a History Center inside what's going to be called the Apple Carnegie Library. We're talking with Jonathan O'Connell. He's a reporter for The Washington Post. And John Suau is the Executive Director of the Historical Society of Washington D.C. Joining us now by phone is Kriston Capps, a staff writer at City Lab. Kriston Capps, thanks you for joining us.
KRISTON CAPPSThank you for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIWhat do you think about this deal?
CAPPSWell, Kojo, you know, I think that if Tim Cook or Apple were philanthropist of the likes of Andrew Carnegie then the company would have renovated the library for the Historical Society, which certainly has the collection of books and arts works and maps to fill that space, but I fear that instead this development represents a partial privatization of a crucial cultural asset.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Gavin, Kriston, who says, "This is the Carnegie Library. It was built by an industrialist and a century later, it will be restored and continue to be maintained by another industrialist. I think that's fitting." What do you say, Kriston?
CAPPSI mean, it is great. It is true that Apple invested in the building, but I think, you know, for one this is the city of obligation. And if the city turns to the private sector for every historic building or park that requires maintenance and gives up the cultural asset in the process, we're not going to have many left. The other thing is that Apple is not a public space. They kind of experience angle -- it's something along the lines of what all retailers are looking to pivot towards during a very difficult retail environment. They have to find their footing, but an Apple store is not a public place and it's certainly not acceptable for residence -- for all residents of D.C.
CAPPSAnd the final thing that I would say is that Carnegie did not build the library system that he built to sell steel. He built, you know, almost 1700 libraries at an adjusted $1.3 billion to give to the public. And I think this represents an asset being taken away from the public partially.
NNAMDIWell, here is what Quasi, who is near Howard University has to say. Quasi, we don't have a lot of time left, but go ahead, please.
QUASIOkay. First of all the library was supposed to be a part of Federal City College, UDC, that was supposed to be the campus where the convention center is, that was supposed to be the campus of the university and the library was an anchor for the campus. The fact that the city would have the audacity to go ahead and take an asset that was supposed to be for education and turn it into a commercial development and so it become a means of revenue for whoever is running for mayor in the next election to the mayor we have now. I think it's an affront to the community. It's an insult. And it lowers the standards in terms of how public officials and public buildings should be used. It's a giveaway. It's rewarding somebody. And somebody may be getting paid through the back door. And I'm very concerned with that.
NNAMDIQuasi, did you once attend Federal City College?
QUASIYeah. We were in a community program.
NNAMDII thought it was you, Quasi Fry. I thought it was you. It sounded like you.
CAPPSYeah, man. I met you a long time ago.
NNAMDIQuasi, thank you very much for your call. John, not everyone obviously, Quasi and Kriston Capps, seems to be thrilled with this partnership seeing a tech company encroaching on a historic cultural space. How do you respond to that critique? Yes.
SUAUThe critique is as valid as, you know, the old post office being used now as a private hotel. I mean, these are very old buildings that are extremely expensive to maintain. In 1999, U.S. Congress gave us a 99 year lease on the building. So we are in essence the master lease holder on the property and as you stated, we have gone through several iterations of what the building has served since 1972. We are going to be there until 2089. As Jonathan O'Connell stated the Apple lease is for a 10 year period. The restoration is absolutely magnificent.
SUAUAnd I just hope that a lot of people that are questioning whether or not this is a valid use of the building will come and visit us and take a look at the D.C. History Center and see what an extraordinary building looks like and how the mixed use of the building, because it's not just a commercial endeavor, we are free and open to the public. We are not a civic -- we are not supported by the city. We have to raise every dollar through memberships, through donors, through sponsorships. So we have, you know, we are sort of the entity that puts the library in the Carnegie Library.
NNAMDIJonathan, at the same time the Carnegie Library was struggling financially, people may not want to lose these historic spaces, Jonathan, but it can be a challenge to find a viable use for a building like that. What other uses were considered over the years?
O'CONNELLYeah. I mean, I'm glad that the caller mentioned UDC. You know, between UDC and the city museum and the attempt to putting the music museum or the spy museum, I mean, I really do emphasize with people who are unhappy about the fact that a corporation has sort of taken over this building. But at the same time, the city had kind of run out of decent ideas and maybe that speaks to, I don't know, a lack of creativity or a lack of willingness to spend money on its buildings or something like that and it probably does.
O'CONNELLBut, you know, to John's point this is not an easy building to reuse. Mostly the entire exterior is protected under historic preservation rules. It's surrounded traffic on all four sides. You know, until recently there wasn't a whole lot to do in that area. And when the convention center is not filled, you'll still see a lack of activity in some -- sometimes a day there. So it's not necessarily an easy building. I just wonder, I mean, if we're going to have 50 times more people visiting there in the future like John is projecting than we did previously hopefully it will expose a lot more people to the building. And if Apple, you know, if it's use as an Apple building that's not permanent, maybe people will find something that they find more palatable later on.
NNAMDIWhere else are we seeing partnerships like this between corporate entities and historic ones, Jonathan?
O'CONNELLI mean, the Trump Hotel is not a terrible example in some ways. I mean, obviously the old post office pavilion on Pennsylvania Avenue is one the most cherished buildings in the city. Before it was put out to bid by the federal government it was, you know, there were some government offices upstairs and there were some like t-shirts shops and a food court downstairs. But the building was really falling into disrepair. You know, the government was not spending enough money to maintain it. A lot of people stopped going there because there wasn't anything good to do really there.
O'CONNELLNow what they did, of course, is they put it out to bid and they got basically the highest bidder they could get, which is Donald Trump's company. And, you know, it has been -- again, that company similar to Apple spent an enormous amount of money renovating and restoring the building to very high standards that nobody had done in a long time. And yet, of course, for a million reasons a lot of people are extremely unhappy without the results.
O'CONNELLSo, you know, some part of this is going to get personal preference. For instance, do you like Apple? Do you care about Apple products? But also do you care when you go to a museum and you see that it is sponsored by a corporation or sponsored by a former CEO of a company and their private name is on the museum exhibit? And to Kriston's point this is a step beyond that. Apple is not a philanthropist here. They are a commercial enterprise trying to sell things and sell their brand to you. So it's going to be at some level a matter of preference here. How much does corporate involvement in museums and civic life bother you?
NNAMDIHere is Judy in Lovettsville, Virginia. Judy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JUDYHi there. I was a reporter on the late Washington Star, a newspaper, which had been in business for well over a century, well before the civil war. And I'm wondering whether this new Historical Center will house the Star archives or whether they will still be at the Martin Luther King Library.
O'CONNELLYeah. The MLK Washingtoniana Division is a partner of ours. They, I believe, hold the collection of The Washington Star. During the renovation of the Carnegie Library MLK is also undergoing renovation. And there was a brief period almost a year, where the Washingtoniana Division was actually housed with the Historical Society. So we were working side by side with our colleagues at the D.C. Public Library. And we learned a great deal about each other's collections and where we have specialty and where they have a stronger set of collections. So we will continue to work with them. We are also working on a citywide initiative called The D.C. Oral History Collaborative in conjunction with the D.C. Public Library and Humanities D.C.
O'CONNELLKojo, if I may address one other thing. We're just talking about the commercial use of historic properties. Another company that's doing this outside of Washington is Restoration Hardware. They've been restoring old buildings in cities like Chicago. And in Boston they actually restored an old museum to create an experiential sort of retail where they're installing all their furniture and goods in a historic building. And people are going in and sort of experiencing what that environment feels like in some of these old historic structures. They just opened a restaurant and hotel in the meat packing district in New York City, which was also a restoration project. So it's not just in Washington D.C. where some of these corporate entities are looking for an opportunity to bring back to life some of these historic buildings rather than building another glass box.
NNAMDIHere's S in Howard County, Maryland. S, you've got to be brief. We don't have much time.
SHi. Kojo, first time, long time. I'd like to -- I was working on this Apple store actually. And I'd like to raise the issue of when corporations come in and set a deadline, there is a human cost, you know. And the fact -- like to put it straight. It was the most dangerous and like racist job site I've worked on in a long time.
NNAMDIWhat kind of work were you doing there?
NNAMDIOkay. And why did you say it was racist?
SOh, man. The porta potties were filled with about a million racist slurs, you know. Every class and race was separated, you know. It was nothing but --
NNAMDII don't know. Jonathan O'Connell, did you hear about any of that in this construction, in this renovation?
O'CONNELLI didn't, but I didn't ask about it either.
NNAMDIExactly right. But thank you for sharing that with us S. Right now unfortunately we don't have time to pursue that, maybe at a later date. Mike emails, "Past iterations of the Carnegie Library building have included events spaces with horrible acoustics. Does the current rebuild follow that absurd pattern?"
O'CONNELLThat's an interesting question. Some of the things I really don't want to talk about, because they're a surprise for the big opening. When you come in there's going to be a lot of activity. We have worked hand in hand with Apple because we are a library in the second floor, of course, and we have serious research going on in the Kiplinger Research Library. So noise levels were always a concern, but I'm happy to report that our library is really beautifully quiet. When we close the doors, the researchers will leave the world of Apple computers and whatever activity is going on downstairs, it gets left behind when you enter the Kiplinger Research Library. It's a beautiful space that people -- the researchers will enjoy.
NNAMDIWell, we had the 15th Anniversary party of this show at the Carnegie Library. It featured the Chuck Brown Band and at that point the acoustics sounded pretty good to me, but I don't know about in other circumstances.
SUAUAnd to that point, that was also a commercial use of the building when Events D.C. was closing the building for private parties and a lot of times it was an impediment for our researchers to come in and use the library. In this case with Apple, we have expanded hours. There's more access to more parts of the building than any time in its history. So I feel like, you know, this iteration is getting a step up from where we were co-tenants with Events D.C. doing parties on Halloween and New Year's Eve. And it was also a commercial use of the building.
NNAMDIJohn Suau was the Executive Director of the Historical Society of Washington D.C. John, good to see you again. Thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIJonathan O'Connell is a reporter for The Washington Post focused on economic development, corporate accountability, and the Trump organization. Jonathan, always a pleasure.
O'CONNELLOh, thank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd Kriston Capps is a Staff Writer at City Lab. Kriston, talked to discuss what it meant to him to lose a cultural space to a corporate entity. Kriston Capps, thank you too for joining us. We're going to take a short break. When we come back you'll be hearing the music of Say Solos. He's an R&B musician in this area who has entered the NPR Music's Tiny Desk Contest. You'll be hearing him and his unique R&B style after this short break. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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