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North East Branch, The Seattle Public Library

HistoryLink.org Essay 4169 : Printer-Friendly Format

The North East Branch, The Seattle Public Library, located at 6801 35th Avenue NE,  had its origins in the Ravenna/View Ridge deposit station, begun in December 1945. The deposit station circulated so many books that in June 1952, it was made into the North East branch of the Seattle Public Library. A 1952 library bond issue failed at the polls, but the Seattle City Council stepped in to fund the creation of a library building for the neighborhood. . The North East branch building, designed by architect Paul Thiry and constructed in 1953, was designated a City of Seattle landmark in January 2001. Originally designed as a mid-sized branch, it has been one of the most patronized branches of the Seattle Public Library system. On April 19, 2003, it closed its doors for  renovation and expansion. The new building, which doubled the square footage of the branch, opened in June 2004.

A New Community

The North East branch of Seattle Public Library serves the Wedgwood, Sand Point, Morningside, View Ridge, Windermere, Ravenna, Bryant, and Laurelhurst neighborhoods. Some of these neighborhoods came into being through the efforts of Albert Balch (1903-1976). Balch began his land development career in 1935, when he bought 10 acres above Sand Point. He called his first development the View Ridge neighborhood, and lived there with his wife, Edith (d. 1970). He developed the Wedgwood neighborhood on land he purchased from Seattle University in 1940. A large number of defense workers for the impending world war needed housing, and with money from the National Housing Act and the Federal Housing Authority, Balch began building 500 homes on the 40-acre tract. Edith Balch, a collector of Wedgwood china, named the area.

The style of the times called for single family homes, mostly single-story, wood-framed houses on large lots, with landscaping and plenty of space for automobiles. Because of these neighborhoods’ proximity to the University of Washington, many professors and graduate students chose to live there. The stores and businesses in the area were community related: groceries, drug stores, restaurants and cafés, schools, daycare centers, churches, and retirement and nursing homes.

Increased Population Demonstrates Demand

After the area’s population doubled between 1940 and 1950, the Seattle City Council began to look into creating a library for the community. The Sand Point deposit station (a location, mostly rooms in schools and fire stations, where books were held and loaned out) closed in October 1945. The Seattle Public Library told the Ravenna Library Committee that if it found a location to hold books, the library would staff it. Committee members went door to door to raise funds. They cleaned and built shelving for a space at 6259 33rd Ave NE.

The Ravenna/View Ridge deposit station opened in December 1945. It circulated 55,200 books in 1950, showing the community’s desire and demand for a "real" library. This deposit station saw so much patronage that it was made into the North East branch library on June 2, 1952.

A 1952 bond issue for a new Central branch building and five more branch libraries failed, but the Seattle City Council gave $492,000 out of its “cumulative reserve” to build the North East, Greenwood, and Henry branch libraries in 1953. Paul Thiry (1904-1993) was selected as architect for the Northeast branch. Without a large shopping center or commercial district in the area at the time, the library building’s placement was planned for the approximate center of the neighborhoods it would serve, and was intended to create a physical and social center for the new community.

Paul Thiry was influential in shaping Northwest architecture. His designs emphasized economy, context, use of local materials, awareness of local light conditions, and integration of art and technological innovation, especially with concrete. He was appointed the primary planner and principal architect of the Seattle World's Fair from 1957 through 1962, designing the exposition grounds and many of the temporary and permanent structures for the fair, including the Seattle Center Coliseum (now KeyArena) (Pacific Architect and Builder).

Thiry's Architecture

Thiry designed the North East library to conform to the residential district in which it is located. It has very large windows and the interior is mostly open space that allows for flexibility in floor layout. The library’s roof overhang protects the windows from direct rain and sunlight, and the trees and shrubs that surround it help to camouflage the building within the neighborhood. Thiry won an American Institute of Architects (AIA) award for the design in 1957.

In Jet Dreams: Art of the Northwest in the Fifties, Barbara Johns quotes Thiry: "Primarily it is the architect's mission to understand the life of the people he serves and to weave into his structures the framework for living." This style of design, "in harmony with nature" (Arts and Architecture), with a respect for people and the environment became known as "Northwest Modernism," or "Northwest Contemporary" (Pacific Architect and Builder).

Construction began in October 1953, and the library opened on Saturday, June 5, 1954. June Thurston, the branch’s second head librarian, and first at the new building, wrote that long before the opening hour, adults and children made up a double line clear out to the street, and when it opened, it was “like bargain day at the department store.” At the end of the month the staff was surprised to have a circulation figure of 15,000 books, with only 12,000 books in stock. At the end of the year, circulation had doubled and registration for borrowers had quadrupled.

Unexpected Popularity

Circulation totals continued to grow every year, and the North East branch had the highest juvenile book circulation of any branch in the city. A Recordak charging machine was installed at the library in 1955. The greatest problem the library experienced in the late 1950s was a lack of adequate staffing due to the branch's unexpected popularity, and an inadequate stock of books. June Thurston wrote: “If one librarian is ill, it is practically a catastrophe,” and that they had one copy of most of the classics, but “the whole high school senior class of several hundred are readings classics” (Annual Reports).

June Thurston left the branch before the problems were fixed, and Enid Slivka took over as the next head librarian. Enid noted disciplinary problems with the teenage boys and girls and closed the library on November 20, 1961, to highlight the problem for the community. The disciplinary problems continued throughout the 1960s, causing them to hire a “proctor” to keep the boys and girls in check.

Thurston wrote, “Much of the difficulty at North East stems from its original design as a medium sized branch” (Annual Report, 1962). By patronage and circulation totals, it was the largest branch within five years of its opening. In her 1962 yearly report, she states: “Although this is no doubt heresy to cast aspersions on such a landmark in public library design as in the North East branch … the work room is too small, the circulation desks require an inefficient use of staff, shelving for children’s section and the magazines are inadequate and most of it was not even planned for in the original design” (Annual Report, 1962).

Landmark Status and Expansion

Seattle Public Library purchased the lot adjacent to the library in 1978 for possible future expansion. On November 3, 1998, voters approved the $196.4 million “Libraries for All” bond issue, and steps toward North East branch expansion began. Seattle Public Library put out a call for architects to design the expansion and renovation of the library in December 2000. The next January, the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board designated the original building as an historic landmark. In March 2001, the Library Board, along with an advisory panel of northeast residents, selected the Miller/Hull partnership to guide the renovation and expansion of the branch.

In February 2003, the Landmarks Preservation Board approved the branch’s expansion plans. The plans include: expanding the branch from its current 7,042 square feet to 15,000 square feet, including a new 90-seat meeting room; new computer work stations; more seating and more instructional areas; a 66,700-piece updated book and materials collection; upgrading technology services and equipment; adding more parking; installing better lighting; improving the building’s seismic safety; and installing energy-efficient windows.

The New North East Branch

North East remained a popular and heavily patronized library. In 2001 it was second only to the Central library in terms of patronage, and it circulated a higher percentage of its collection than any branch in the system.

In April 2003 the branch closed for a $4,765,276 expansion project and reopened on June 26, 2004.  This was the 10th branch opened as part of "Libraries For All," a $196.4 million bond issue passed by Seattle voters in 1998.

The expansion project, designed by The Miller/Hull Partnership, revealed once more the bones of Paul Thiry’s design and continued his theme. The collection capacity was expanded to accommodate 66,700 books and materials, while the welcoming openness of Paul Thiry’s original design was recaptured.  The expanded facility provided more seating, many more computer work stations, a large meeting room, upgraded functional technology, small instruction/meeting rooms, and a vastly improved lighting system.  The total square footage of the facility was expanded from 7,042 square feet to 15,000 square feet.  Recycled building materials were used whenever possible.  Seismic safety was also upgraded as part of the project.

North East Branch Librarians

    • Mrs. Margaret S. Porter, 1952–1953
    • June T. Thurston, 1953–1960
    • Robert E. Iams, 1960-1961
    • Enid M. Slivka, October 1961-September 1967
    • Katherine Porter, October 1967-June 1971
    • James A. Welsh, July 1971-1977
    • Regional Management, 1977-1990
    • Nancy Foley, 1990-1993
    • Bob Hageman 1993-1995
    • Elizabeth Yee, 1995-2000
    • Toni Myers, 2000-2001
    • Bobbie Daniel, 2001-2004
    • Jane Appling, 2004
    • Cass Mabbott , 2005-2006
    • Francesca Wainwright, 2006
    • Jennifer Patterson, 2006-2007
    • Steve DelVecchio, 2006-2007
    • Marion Scichilone, 2007-present

Sources:
Pacific Architect and Builder, October 1954,pp. 10-11; Landmark Nomination form for NE Library, BOLA Architecture, October 2000; Jet Dreams: Art of the Fifties in the Northwest ed. by Barbara Johns (Tacoma: Tacoma Art Museum and University of Washington Press), 56; David Wilma, “Wedgwood -- Thumbnail History,” Historylink Metropedia Library (www.historylink.org); "North East Library," Seattle Public Library Website (www. SPL.org); North East Library Yearly Reports: 1954, 1956, 1962, Seattle Public Library Archives; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, " North East Branch, The Seattle Public Library, reopens after a $4,765,276 expansion project on June 26, 2004," (by Paula Becker) http://www.HistoryLink.org, (accessed June 7, 2007); Library Board of Seattle, Minutes of Proceedings, Vols. 5 (1934-1944), 6 (1945-1951), 7(1952-1957), 8 (1958-1961), 9 (1962-1966), 10 (1967-1970), 11 (1971-1973), 12 (1974-1976), 13 ( 1977-1978), Seattle Room, Central Branch, Seattle Public Library, Seattle; Karen Spiel, email to Paula Becker, February 14, 2009, in possession of Paula Becker, Seattle, Washington; Gayle Richardson, email to Paula Becker, February 24, 2009, in possession of Paula Becker, Seattle, Washington.
Note: This essay was updated on May 29, 2005, December 30, 2007, September 10, 2008, and again on April 26, 2009.


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North East Branch, The Seattle Public Library (Paul Thiry, 1954), 2001
Courtesy The Seattle Public Library


Architect Paul Thiry (1904-1993), ca. 1962
Photo by Josef Scalea, Courtesy Josef Scalea


The exterior of the North East Branch, Seattle Public Library, ca. 1965
Photo by Art Hupy, Courtesy Seattle Public Library


The entrance of the North East Branch, Seattle Public Library, ca. 1965
Photo by Art Hupy, Courtesy Seattle Public Library


The checkout desk and interior of the North East Branch, Seattle Public Library, ca. 1965
Photo by Art Hupy, Courtesy The Seattle Public Library


The children's section of the North East Branch, Seattle Public Library, ca. 1965
Photo by Art Hupy, Courtesy Seattle Public Library


Interior of the North East Branch, Seattle Public Library, ca. 1975
Courtesy The Seattle Public Library


North East Branch, The Seattle Public Library, opening day, June 26, 2004
Courtesy The Seattle Public Library


 
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