On February 20, 1914, residents of Auburn celebrate the opening of the city's new Carnegie Library. Located on the corner of 3rd Street NE and Auburn Avenue, the handsome brick building, designed by architect David J. Myers (1873-1936) and constructed by contractor Fredrick L. Berner (1863-1936), is funded by a $9,000 grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The site for the library was donated by library board member Arthur C. Ballard (1876-1962), whose parents founded the town three decades earlier. Thus the new library has not cost the taxpayers of Auburn an extra dollar. The Carnegie Library will serve Auburn for 50 years before the city builds a new larger library in 1964. That building in turn will serve for 36 years until 2000, when the King County Library System opens the Auburn Library's current building on Auburn Way S.
First Libraries and the Carnegie Grant
Dr. Levi Ward Ballard (1815-1897) and Mary Esther Ballard (1833-1909) first platted for the town of Slaughter (named for an army lieutenant killed nearby in conflicts with Native Americans years earlier) in 1886 on part of their homestead near the confluence of the White and Green rivers. The town incorporated under that name in 1891, but at the request of residents the state legislature changed the name to Auburn two years later.
The earliest known library in Auburn was organized in the early years of the twentieth century. After a short time in the back room of Young's Bakery the library moved in 1903 to a room in the back of Auburn Drug Store on West Main Street. It was there the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) organization supported and sponsored a traveling library offered by the Washington State Library. By 1905 the city had established a library board, and the following year the library moved to a room on the second floor of the newly built city hall, where the city funded and managed library operations.
After five years in the city hall building, it became apparent the library was too small for the city's growing population. The library board started seeking ways to fund expanding the library. In 1911, the Andrew Carnegie Corporation of New York was formed for the purpose of supporting and granting funds for the building of city and town libraries. James Bertram (1872-1934), a member of the executive committee for the Carnegie Foundation, made most of the funding decisions. Cities in Washington, including Auburn, as well as Clarkston, Port Townsend, and Puyallup, were among the first to apply for Carnegie grants after the foundation was established.
In August 1911, the library board filled out, and the mayor signed, the required application for a $10,000 Carnegie grant. A letter written by the library board dated August 11, 1911, to James Bertram confirmed the grant opportunity and explained the reasons for Auburn's request. The following May the library board received a letter, quoted in full in the Auburn Republican, stating that the corporation would grant $9,000 to assist in the building of a new library in Auburn:
"Dear Sir: Responding to your communications on behalf of Auburn. If the city agrees by resolution of council to maintain a free public library at a cost of not less than $900 a year, and provides a suitable site for the building, Carnegie Corporation of New York will be glad to give $9,000, to erect a free public library building for Auburn. It should be noted that the amount indicated is to cover the cost of library building complete, ready for occupancy and for the purpose intended. Before any expenditure on building or plans is incurred, the approval of proposed plans by Carnegie Corporation of New York should be secured, to obtain which please send sketch plans for inspections. Yours respectfully, Carnegie Corporation of New York, By James Bertram, Secretary" ("Mr. Carnegie Comes Through").
Library board members speculated about why the grant was $9,000 instead of the expected $10,000. The population of the town was recorded in the 1910 census as 957 (and was estimated at 1,100 by 1911). However, the proposed library was to serve anyone living within the Auburn school district boundaries, or slightly more than 2,000 people. It was surmised that the fact of this larger population to be served was not considered in determining the amount of the grant.
Locating and Building the Carnegie Library
One week after receiving the letter, the library board began plans for the new library. The board brought in David J. Myers, a Seattle-based architect, to assist in planning the new library. During 1912, the library board spent a significant amount of time assessing various sites. In January 1913, board member Arthur Ballard and his wife offered to donate two lots on the corner of Auburn Avenue and Third Street NE as a site for the library and the board accepted.
Frederick L. Berner, a contractor from Auburn, was hired on March 7, 1913, to build the library, with the initial contract calling for work to be completed by that June. However, almost from the beginning of construction, delays and cost overruns plagued the project, and generated a substantial one-sided correspondence between architect David Myers and contractor Frederick Berner. In one letter, following a two-month extension that Berner had requested, Myers wrote:
"Your contract calls for the work to be completed on the 10th day of June 1913. On consideration of some delays in the foundation I allowed you sixty day extension. This time has also expired and the work seems to be dragging along in a very indefinite manner ... now, I think it is high time that you made a supreme effort to rush the work towards completion" (Myers to Berner, August 25, 1913).
Berner did not respond. Myers continued writing letters to Berner about work that seemed always to be either not started or not finished until the library was completed in February 1914.
Despite the delays that had preceded it, the opening of Auburn's Carnegie Library on Friday, February 20, 1914, was an event of much more than ordinary interest to the public. The extent of the public interest in the modern two-story brick building at 300 Auburn Avenue was demonstrated by the standing-room-only audience that gathered for the opening ceremonies. Every chair was taken and gentlemen gave up their seats to the ladies, sitting on tables or standing. Mr. Todd, a library board member, announced the program and then introduced the Ladies Musical Club to sing the opening song. After doing so, the club singers in turn introduced University of Washington librarian William E. Henry (1857-1936), who spoke for 85 minute on libraries and library work.
Henry's speech was supplemented by an impromptu talk by Todd, who made some comments about the needs of the library and how to meet them. Todd also thanked many involved in the project, including contractor Frederick Berner, the Ballards who donated the land for the library, library board member E. Bronson Smith (1867-1937), and librarian Mary Fife Smith (1859-1944). All were applauded vigorously. The Ladies Musical Club closed the program by singing "End of a Perfect Day."
Afterward, the guests strolled around to admire the new library. The main floor, which measured 50 by 100 feet, was divided into three sections. Massive oak doors opened into a small entranceway, from which several steps led up to the center section. This was dominated by the large circular librarian's desk, constructed of Washington fir and fitted with numerous drawers, small cupboards and cubby-holes, and a card tray holding the library's card catalog. On one side was a dumbwaiter for carrying books to and from the storeroom. The adjustable shelving and other woodwork was finished in silver gray aluminum. To the right or south side of the room was the children's section with three long low tables and chairs to match and rows of shelves containing literature for children. On the north side was the adult section similarly furnished with tables and chairs.
The library was lit by 10 large 110-watt lamps with inverted shades, which cast a soft mellow glow over the room. The fir flooring was finished with a hard varnish and the walls painted cream and white. The building was heated by hot-water radiators. The basement had cement floors and held the furnace, a janitor's room and work rooms, toilets and lavatories, and two unfinished rooms that would later be used for assembly or club purposes and as a newspaper room.
All that the brand-new Auburn Carnegie Library lacked on opening day was a full complement of books. The approximately 1,500 moved from the old city hall library did not come close to filling the shelves of the new one, which could hold 7,000 volumes. Library board members noted that although a sizeable number of donated books had been received, more were needed, and expressed hope that contributions of books and/or money would continue to come in.
After the Carnegie Library
The Carnegie Library was Auburn's library until the city opened a new building 50 years later. In 1962, a bond issue was approved and the funds were used to construct a new larger library on the corner of 9th and H streets, which opened on April 12, 1964. The Carnegie building was sold to Richard E. Smith, who converted it into a dance studio. On August 5, 1982, the Carnegie building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places as a landmark.
The Auburn Library remained in the building at 9th and H for 35 years. In 1997, with 70 percent in favor, Auburn voters approved annexing the Auburn Library to the King County Library System (KCLS), one of the busiest library systems in the United States. By then, with population growth, advances in technology, and community demands for new means of access to information, the library had outgrown the 1964 building, and KCLS soon began planning a new, up-to-date library for Auburn. The new Auburn Library located at 1102 Auburn Way S (State Route 164) opened in April 2000. Renovated and expanded in 2012, it continues to serve residents in and around Auburn with the latest in information technology, just as the Carnegie Library had a century earlier.