Apple Carnegie Library: An inside look at Apple’s most ambitious store yet

Science. Poetry. History. These three words set the tone as you pass through the doors of Apple Carnegie Library, the latest in a careful collection of global flagship stores. It’s been over 116 years since each art was carved into marble and hung above the library’s entrance, but the studies remain as relevant to Apple today as they were when the building was built. Apple Carnegie Library is far more than a store — it’s the clearest public expression of Apple’s values.

In Washington, D.C., Apple hosted a special preview of its new space ahead of the grand opening on May 11th at 10:00 A.M. There was certainly cause for celebration. According to Tim Cook, the completed library is Apple’s “most historic, ambitious restoration by far, in the world.”

Located at the nexus of Mount Vernon Square and surrounded on all sides by freshly landscaped parkland, D.C.’s Beaux-Arts Carnegie Library is a gleaming historic structure set amid modern commercial developments. But it wasn’t always that way. Just two years ago, the library was tired and underutilized, dulled by time and a succession of promising reuse projects that struggled to get off the ground. The last time the building served as a proper public library was 1972. It was a far cry from the vision Andrew Carnegie outlined when he funded the building’s construction.

Apple’s plans to revitalize the space came together swiftly. Most of the company’s retail store restorations have been international projects, so a historic store is a new experience for many Apple customers in the U.S. Teaming up with architecture firms Foster + Partners for design and Beyer Blinder Belle for preservation expertise, a strategy was devised to respect the library’s original architecture and intent while reversing a century of modifications and adding a few modern touches along the way.

Stepping inside today, you’re greeted by the library’s original three-story staircase to your left and right. A bronze handrail winds from the basement to the second floor, where the DC History Center and city Historical Society reside.

Straight ahead, just past dentil moulding inscribed and gold-leafed with the names of ancient intellectuals Plato, Homer, and Galileo is the Forum. At one time, this area housed a circulation desk. Today, the space is dotted with ficus trees from Florida, seating, and a video wall. A new skylight opens the atrium to the second level.

Had you requested a book from the library a century ago, a staff member would’ve visited the area behind the Forum to find your title. The stack room was the knowledge hub of the library, a private space that contained every resource available to visitors. While the stacks have long since disappeared, the room today serves a similar purpose, lined with training tables and open to the public as a place to wait for your appointment or learn from the knowledge hub that is Apple’s retail team. Tall, narrow windows interrupted by columns of white Vermont Marble mined from a quarry in Danby frame the north entrance.

Representatives from Apple’s design team and Foster + Partners discuss the building’s restoration.

The east and west wings of the library’s first level have transformed from reading rooms into ornate showrooms for Apple’s hardware, software, and services. Though spacious, these areas are distinct from the building’s center of gravity and allow the products to fade to the background. Unique freestanding Avenue displays mimic the placement of walls that once split the reading rooms down the center.

A row of Apple Watches is juxtaposed against original arched windows restored with operable sashes. iMacs sit on Apple’s iconic wooden tables not far from wainscoting designed to reference the bookshelves that once lined each reading room. Narrow LED lamps matching those used at Apple’s store in Grand Central Station have been added to each table for a touch of elegance. The interplay between old and new is carefully balanced without feeling forced or alien. Apple was even able to reinterpret the original ventilation design in both reading rooms.

Apple Carnegie Library is the first store in the United States and only the second in the world to feature what Apple calls an Experience Room, a more comfortable space to learn how Apple’s entire ecosystem of products works together. The furniture in the Experience Room matches the pieces found in the Boardroom.

In the basement, past the Carnegie Gallery with its exhibit vaults lined in refurbished Guastavino tile is Apple’s Boardroom, a private space for meetings that will host the creators Apple partners with for a robust lineup of educational and creative Today at Apple programming planned.

The work of a few of those first creators was featured near the library entrance on large posters announcing the StoryMakers Festival, a 6 week series of special Today at Apple sessions hosted by 40 skilled artists. From poetry to illustration to photography, each event in the series highlights the art of storytelling. May marks the second anniversary of Today at Apple’s worldwide rollout, and the StoryMakers Festival testifies to the growing importance of Apple’s creative platform to the future of its stores. 

Education joins architecture and history as a major theme of the Carnegie Library store. Apple threw out the book on traditional retail long ago, so it’s no surprise that the space takes a page from previous projects like Apple Michigan Avenue and Apple Union Square to create a community gathering place. What’s unique at this location is the depth and magnitude of the initiative. The Carnegie Library acts as a role model for the type of work Apple hopes to accomplish at all of its stores across the world.

Apple is ramping its educational curriculum in D.C. through improved access to knowledge. For the first time, sign language interpreters will be available for in-store services and sessions. By sharing the library with the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., learning that extends beyond the creative disciplines Apple products cater to is encouraged. A customer picking up a new iPad might leave with a better understand of the L’Enfant Plan. For school groups taking a class field trip, a quick coding session might be the spark that leads to a lifetime passion for creating apps and tools for others. Apple is making a significant investment around the idea that a library for the 21st century is one augmented by technology and shared experiences.

The benefits of a civic collaboration at this scale are obvious in the short term, but perhaps even more meaningful given time. Skeptics of the strategy argue that public space around the world is under siege by corporate interests, but Apple’s actions to this point have shown only positive intentions. Even if you disagree with Apple’s vision or products, the importance of education and historic preservation is difficult to dismiss. Just as Andrew Carnegie donated D.C.’s public library more than a century ago to ensure future generations access to knowledge, Apple’s reinvestment in the city is a statement to its dedication to leaving the Earth a better place than it found it.

If you attend a store opening, spot something interesting, or attend a great Today at Apple session, we’d love to see your photos. Follow 9to5Mac’s retail guide for in-depth coverage of the latest Apple Store news.

FTC: We use income earning auto affiliate links. More.

Check out 9to5Mac on YouTube for more Apple news:


Apple Retail

Apple operates 510 retail stores across the globe.

About the Author