Central Library : History

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History of the Central Library

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 to meet the growing needs of patrons. 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 systematically underwriting 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.


1906 Central Library opens in Seattle

The handsome Central Library Carnegie opened in 1906.


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. The seating area included ashtrays for patrons who smoked;
  • Escalators and air conditioning;
  • Abstract modern art featuring Northwest artists;
  • A film department with 1,000 16-millimeter films available for two-day loan periods.


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.


1960 Central Library opens in Seattle


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. Award-winning Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, in a joint venture with Seattle-based LMN Architects, was selected to design the structure.

Central Library in Seattle, Washington

View of the Central Library from Fourth Avenue and Madison Street


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. The 11-floor building contains an innovative "Books Spiral," which allows patrons unprecedented access to the Library collection. The crystalline steel-and-glass structure contains five platforms — each devoted to a specific program cluster. Four open spaces are housed among the platforms, where patrons can meet, search the Web or read.


The new building includes centers for children, teens and adult readers, as well as space for more computers and expanded collections. It also has the 275-seat Microsoft Auditorium and parking for about 143 vehicles. Its $165.9 million cost includes $10 million for the Temporary Central Library.


See also Floor by floor highlights.

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