Central Library, 1960-2001, The Seattle Public Library

  • By David Wilma
  • Posted 4/16/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 4157
For more than 40 years, The Seattle Public Library's Central Library at 4th Avenue and Spring Street served as the city's largest branch and as system headquarters. The building with its International Style design opened in 1960 to replace the library's previous Beaux Arts style structure. It fit with other buildings going up downtown at the time such as the Municipal Building (1959) and the Norton Building (1959). The new library offered room for the various collections, staff offices, a bindery, meeting rooms, and classrooms.

In 1901, philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) granted Seattle funds to build a new library to replace the library in the old Yesler mansion destroyed by fire. In 1906, a fire-resistant masonry structure designed by Peter J. Weber in the Beaux Arts style went up at 4th Avenue and Spring Street. The property had been sold to the City as a library site in 1901 by attorney James McNaught. Within 20 years, the library was too small and in need of replacement. The 1949 earthquake further damaged the structure, but not enough to close it. Voters were reluctant to approve the necessary construction bonds for a replacement until 1956. That year, $5 million in bonds were approved for a new central library and three new branches.

Architects Leonard Bindon and John L. Wright in association with the firm of Decker, Christiansen & Kitchin produced a design for a new building that followed an International Style then popular among downtown developers. Because of the steep lot between Spring and Madison streets, the new structure was three stories on one side and five on the other (with two basements).

Seattle mayor Gordon S. Clinton (b. 1920) and library board president Wayne C. Booth broke ground on June 17, 1958.  The new library opened with a public celebration on March 26, 1960. The design is described in the landmark nomination prepared by Bola Architecture + Planning:
"Its mass was made up by a series of flat-room cubic shape[s] with three roof terraces. Different Modernist styled facades characterized each of the four elevations, with subtle wall projections on the northeast. Exterior cladding and fenestration expressed the building's internal functions" (Bola, 12).

The new facility contrasted starkly with the old familiar Carnegie, but eventually Seattleites adjusted. The  library was adorned with public art, including George Tsutakawa's Fountain of Wisdom (the renowned sculptor's first public commission),  Ray Jensen's Pursuit of Knowledge, Glen Alp's Activity and Growth, and James FitzGerald's 27-foot glass and metal screen. Granite panels covered the outside along with exposed quartz-aggregate pre-cast concrete and heat-absorbing glass.

Escalators connected the first three floors, which housed the majority of the building's public open stacks. Departments such as Newspapers, Aeronautics, Music, Art, Business/Economics, and History all had their own areas. The Children's Library was placed on the third floor along with roof terraces, an auditorium, classrooms, and office space. Library offices and the bindery worked out of the upper floors. The designers provided for more floors that could be added to the south portion of the building and this became known as The Tower.

Over the next 40 years, a number of renovations changed the original layout. The movie-preview room on the third floor became a children's reading room. Across the main lobby, the Popular Reading Room became a Community Learning Lab for computer instruction. The Children's Department became the Lifelong Learning Center for young adults and English-as-a-Second-Language materials.

In August 1992 the library completed an arduous transition from card catalog to online computer catalog, a major evolution in the way librarians and patrons accessed the collection. In 1993 the library underwent a facility assessment that concluded that Central's inadequacies were so severe that any effort to expand the existing building would be money wasted. Thirteen different downtown sites were considered for a new,  as yet unfunded building. 

A 1994 library bond issue failed to pass by just 3 percent, heartening library boosters for the drive toward eventual public funding for the project.

In 1998, Seattle voters approved the $196.4 million Libraries for All bond issue, which provided for new branches and a new central library. Architect Rem Koohaas's novel design was chosen for the $90 million replacement for the central library. The 1960 library went under the wrecker's ball in November 2001. The central library moved to temporary quarters in the Washington State Convention and Trade Center at 8th Avenue and Pike Street.

The new library opened to worldwide acclaim on May 23, 2004.

Head Librarians

  • A. J. Snoke, 1891-1982
  • Mrs. L. K. Harnet, 1892-1893
  • J.  D. Atkinson, 1893-1895
  • Charles Wesley Smith, 1895-1907
  • Judson T. Jennings, 1907-1942
  • John S. Richards, 1942-1957
  • Willard O. Youngs, 1957-1974
  • Verda R. Hansberry (Acting) January-May 1975
  • Ronald A. Dubberly, 1975 -1988
  • Liz Stroup, 1988-1996
  • Deborah L. Jacobs, 1997-2008
  • Susan Hildreth, 2009-present

Sources: Landmark Nomination of the Seattle Public Library Central Branch, spiral bound report, Bola Architecture + Planning, September 2000, Historylink Offices, Seattle, Washington; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Seattle Public Library -- A Pictorial History of Times and Tomes Past -- Slide Show" (by Paul Dorpat), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed April 15, 2003); Robin Updike, "Downtown Library Space-Age Design Goes Beyond the Books, The Seattle Times, December 16, 1999, p. 1; "That Chapter is Over," Ibid., November 10, 2001, p. B-4; John Douglas Marshall, Place of Learning, Place of Dreams: A History of The Seattle Public Library (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004); The Golden Jubilee of the Seattle Public Library: Miscellaneous Papers Collected by Elizabeth Gillette Henry, 1941 (Seattle Public Library Northwest History Collection, Seattle, Washington); The Seattle Public Library: A Chronology, compiled by Verda A. Hansberry (Seattle: Seattle Public Library, 1983), p. 28.
Note: This essay was updated on April 21, 2005, and again on March 30, 2009. Peter J. Weber's name was corrected on June 22, 2011.

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