Central Library History
The Seattle Public Library became a part of the city of Seattle in 1890. It operated from various downtown locations, always needing more space. After a fire burned down the Library’s Yesler Mansion location, in 1906 a Carnegie library opened at 1000 Fourth Avenue.
When Seattle had outgrown that building, the second Central Library opened in 1960. It was later upgraded in 1979. The third and current Central Library, a result of the 1998 “Libraries for All” bond measure, opened May 23, 2004.
2004 Project: Replace existing library
The previous 206,000-square-foot library opened in 1960 on the existing location at 1000 Fourth Ave. During construction of the new library, a 130,000-square-foot temporary facility opened at 800 Pike St. in the expanded Washington State Convention and Trade Center. The temporary Central Library opened July 7, 2001 and closed April 30, 2004.
The new library has:
- an updated collection capacity of 1.45 million books and materials
- 11 floors
- underground parking
- spacious areas for children, young adults and adults
- a four-level "Books Spiral" with most of the nonfiction collection in a continuous loop
- a floor called the “Mixing Chamber” with computers and information desks
- more computer work stations and instructional areas
- multilingual and English-as-a-Second-Language areas
- coffee cart
- exterior "skin" of insulated glass on a steel structure
- Project: Replace existing library
- Completion date: 2004
- Budget for capital costs: $165.9 million (includes $10 million for the temporary Central Library)
- Total library program area: 362,987 square feet (formerly 206,000 square feet)
- Computers: 400 (formerly 75)
- Central Library Building Committee Library Board members: Gilbert W. Anderson and Linda Larson
- Architects: Office for Metropolitan Architecture, LMN Architects
- Contractor: Hoffman Construction Co.
- March 2002: Construction documents completed.
- October 2001: Construction crews finished salvaging and recycling interior materials.
- September 2001: Contractors finished removing asbestos and other hazardous materials.
- August 2001: Contractors completed the final landscape removal plan, the first visible sign of the start of demolition.
- June 8, 2001: The existing Central Library at 1000 Fourth Ave. closed for good to make way for construction of a bold and exciting new facility. The Library began moving its books and materials to a temporary location at 800 Pike St.
- May 2001: Hundreds of people attended an open house to see images of the final design of the new library and learn more about how the innovative building will look and function.
- March 2001: The Library and its architects finished the design of the new Central Library.
- February 2001: William B. Meyer Inc. was hired to move the books, furniture and equipment from the Central Library to temporary quarters at 800 Pike St.
- Throughout 2000: Members of 37 Library staff work groups gave architects feedback on the library design.
- December 2000: The Library Board selected four artists to propose artwork to be integrated into the new library.
- September 2000: Library users tested mock-ups of two "books spiral" floor designs to house the library's nonfiction collection in a continuous run. The Library Board selected Jessica Cusick and Rick Lowe to be art planners, following the recommendation of an advisory committee that evaluated 14 applications.
- May 2000: Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture reviewed progress on the library design for 1,500 people at a public presentation at Benaroya Hall. The Library Board selected Hoffman Construction Co. to be general contractor/construction manager. Four firms applied for the job.
- January 2000: Members of the public joined 10 work groups - including services for children, older adults, young adults and people with disabilities - to share their hopes and dreams for the new library.
- December 1999: More than 1,000 people attended public events at which architect Rem Koolhaas described his early vision for the library.
- May 1999: The Library Board selected architect Rem Koolhaas and Seattle-based LMN Architects to jointly design the new library after 1,700 people attended presentations put on by three finalists. An advisory panel reviewed the qualifications of the 29 firms that applied for the job. The Library selected The Seneca Group to be project manager. Ten firms applied for the job.
Fire flames movement to build Seattle Central Library
The Seattle Public Library was adopted as a branch of Seattle city government in 1890. During its first decade, it operated from various downtown locations, always needing more space. This period came to a sudden and sensational end on Jan. 2, 1901. An early morning fire destroyed the Yesler Mansion at Third Avenue and James Street — the Library's home at that time. Hoping for a bigger and permanent building, community leaders weren't entirely sad to see it go. "All glory to the man who applied the torch," commented Frank Bernard, superintendent of Seattle Public Schools, in a Seattle Post-Intelligencer report of the fire.
Library proponents made pleas for construction funds to provide a new and permanent facility to philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who had been funding library construction across the country. Carnegie came through. Four days after the fire, local newspapers announced Carnegie's gift of $200,000 for a new library building. Carnegie later donated $20,000 for furnishings. As part of the deal, city officials agreed to purchase a building site and guarantee $50,000 annually for maintenance.
Classic Beaux-Arts design distinguishes first library building
In 1902, the city purchased an undeveloped downtown block for $100,000. The new home for the library was bounded by Fourth and Fifth avenues and Madison and Spring streets.
Six U.S. architects with substantial experience in library design — as well as every architect in the state of Washington — were invited to submit designs. In August 1903, the city selected a classic Beaux-Arts design prepared by German-born and trained architect P.J. Weber of Chicago. Construction of the 55,000-square-foot library began in spring of 1905.
On Dec. 19, 1906, city officials dedicated the Central Library Carnegie located at 1000 Fourth Ave. When it opened it contained 81,035 books, had 22,444 borrowers, a circulation of 191,624 (302,203 system wide), and 47 employees. The building offered seating for 551 readers. Seattle's population at the time totaled 144,397.
Standing patrons cited among reasons to replace library
In the 1930s, Library officials began pressing for larger quarters. In the "Ten-Year Program for Seattle Public Library," published in 1940, staff noted "during the busy seasons when all the chairs are occupied, library patrons are forced to stand and read while they wait for chairs to be vacated." Space for books was lacking as well. More than 70,000 volumes had to be stored in the West Seattle Library basement.
The city responded in 1946 with $400,000 for an 18,000-square-foot addition to the Central Library. Yet public disaffection for the building remained. Newspaper articles referred to the building as "unsightly and inadequate," and several expansion studies were commissioned. In 1956, a $5 million bond issue passed, setting the stage for the construction of a new library to replace the 50-year-old structure. A year later, Bindon & Wright was selected as the primary architect and Decker Christenson & Kitchin as associated architects.
The Central Library temporarily relocated to the Seventh and Olive building when the existing edifice was demolished in 1957. After receiving bids on the project, the city awarded the construction contract in June 1958 to a joint partnership of the Lloyd W. Johnson Co. and the Morrison-Knudsen Co. Inc. The groundbreaking ceremony occurred later that month.
Second Central Library opens in 1960
Dedicated on March 26, 1960, the new 206,000-square-foot Central Library took 21 months to build and cost $4.5 million.The new five-story library possessed a modern, international design with functional, open interior spaces. It featured:
- A drive-in service window designed to offset the lack of parking. Patrons who ordered books in advance could pick them up without having to get out of their cars.
- The Popular Library, where patrons could find the latest books and read in comfort.
- Escalators and air conditioning.
- Abstract modern art featuring Northwest artists.
- A film department with 1,000 16-millimeter films.
When the new facility opened, the Central Library and branches contained about 1 million volumes, had 260,425 registered borrowers and a yearly circulation of 3.6 million. The city's population had grown to 557,087.
When the new Central Library opened in 1960, it served as one of Seattle's first examples of the "international" style of architecture.
The city was able to upgrade the Central Library 19 years later with a $2.3 million federal grant. Completed in 1979, the renovation gave patrons access to art and music materials on the fourth floor, and added chairs, work tables, a media center, magazine and newspaper centers and carpets.
1998 Bond Issue endorses third Central Library
By the 1990s, planning for a new round of library improvements was under way. In November 1998, Seattle voters overwhelmingly approved a $196.4 million "Libraries for All" bond measure to double the square footage of Seattle's neighborhood libraries and build a new Central Library on the existing site.
In July 2001, Central Library operations moved into a 130,000-square-foot temporary location in the Washington State Convention and Trade Center at 800 Pike St. The library was demolished that fall.
The new 362,987-square-foot Central Library opened May 23, 2004.