Renton Highlands Library, King County Library System

  • By Margaret Riddle
  • Posted 5/31/2017
  • Essay 20367
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The Renton Highlands Library is located at 2801 NE 10th Street in the city of Renton, 15 miles southeast of Seattle. In 1944 the newly formed King County Library System (KCLS) opened the first Renton Highlands Library to serve workers employed at the nearby Boeing aircraft assembly plant and Pacific Car and Foundry (PACCAR) during World War II. The library became part of the city's Renton Public Library system in 1947. In the postwar years Renton kept growing, with the Boeing and PACCAR plants continuing to operate and other industries moving to the area. In 1973 the city built a new Renton Highlands Library, which served the community, with remodeling updates, for the next four decades. In 2010, the city's two libraries, Renton Highlands and Renton Public, were annexed to the King County Library System. KCLS and the city worked together on plans for a new Renton Highlands Library, which opened in March 2016 as part of the city's redevelopment of the Sunset Area in the Highlands neighborhood.

Lumber, Coal, and Libraries

The Renton Highlands neighborhood traces its beginnings to the World War II era, but the origins of the city of Renton date back to a donation land claim made in 1853 by settlers Henry H. Tobin (d. 1857) and Diana Gilman Tobin (1829-1894). Timber was plentiful and the location at the south end of Lake Washington ideal for lumbering. When a neighboring settler, Dr. R. H. Bigelow, discovered coal on his property, the settlers teamed up and their mill provided lumber for the mines. The mill was short-lived, burned to the ground during the Indian Wars in 1855. Tobin died in 1857 and Bigelow did not return. Diana Tobin stayed and eventually married settler Erasmus Smithers (1830-1900) who, with backing from lumber and shipping merchant Captain William Renton (1818-1891), began the Renton Cooperative Coal Company.

When Smithers platted a town in 1875, he named it Renton. The coal company gave Renton its first library in 1903 when the Renton Coal Miner's Association began collecting books and opened a small library that operated for a few years on the upper floor of a downtown commercial buildings before the collection was given to the local high school.

Renton's first public library was built on Bronson Way N near Park Avenue N, with funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The building, designed by architect Harold H. Ginnold (1886-1959), opened on March 11, 1914, and served city residents for more than 50 years.

A Library for the Highlands

Pacific Car and Foundry had a Renton plant as early as 1907. Development slowed during the Great Depression of the 1930s, but the outbreak of World War II in 1939 and then the U.S. entry into the war in 1941 spurred a wartime economic boom. PACCAR began production of Sherman tanks and the Boeing Company built a plant in Renton to build B-29 bombers. Renton grew rapidly as wartime workers moved to the area. In May 1942 the Federal Public Housing Authority began building housing for those workers and their families in an area east of the existing city that real estate developers had referred to as Renton Highlands as early the 1930s. The quickly built housing projects had their problems and newspapers reported on youth crimes and what was termed "juvenile delinquency," but residents worked to make the Highlands into a livable community.

Schools and businesses opened to serve those moving to the new housing developments, and there was also a need for increased library services. In 1944 the King County Library System, which had been created as the King County Rural Library District the previous year, opened the Renton Highlands Library near the Sunset Terrace housing development.

After the war, in 1947, the Renton Highlands Library became a one of the city's public libraries, along with the main Renton Carnegie Library. Taking on the responsibility for a second library proved to be a drain on city resources and there was some consideration of closing the Highlands branch. As early as the 1950s, the city's Library Board discussed whether to join the King County Library System, but at that time city officials chose to continue maintaining an independent library system. In 1966, the Carnegie Library was replaced by a new Renton Public Library that was built spanning the Cedar River, and in the following decade the city turned its attention to replacing the original Renton Highlands Library.

After Renton voters approved a city bond measure to fund the construction cost of slightly more than $176,000, a new Renton Highlands Library was built at 2902 NE 12th Street by the firm Callison Associates. The 6,592-square-foot library opened in 1973 with a collection of 24,000 items. A 1938 Works Project Administration (WPA) mural titled Coal Miners by Russian-born artist Jacob Elshin (1892-1976) was prominently displayed in the new library. The mural had been donated to the city of Renton by the United States Postal Service, to be hung in the new library in honor of the area's coal-mining origins.

In response to evolving library and community needs, the Renton Highlands Library was substantially remodeled in 1997. The project included wiring it for computer use and reroofing the structure.

Annexation to KCLS

In 2008, with a nationwide recession straining the city budget, Renton officials and residents again began serious consideration of annexing the Renton libraries to KCLS. After several years of weighing the pros and cons of keeping their libraries independent or joining KCLS, Renton voters approved moving forward with annexation. On March 1, 2010, the Renton Highlands Library and the Renton Library were officially annexed to the King County Library System, tapping into the greater support services and collections available through KCLS. In April of that year KCLS held open houses at both libraries to announce both short-term and long-range plans. Immediate changes included redecorating the library interiors, adding to their collections, providing community meeting rooms, and extending library hours.

Long-range plans tackled broader community needs. Looking at the Renton service area as a whole, which also included the Skyway and Fairwood libraries, it was apparent that both the Renton and Renton Highlands libraries needed new or substantially renovated structures. The Renton Highlands Library was in greatest need -- it had the largest circulation within the service area, the building was outdated, and the community was continuing to grow.

The New Renton Highlands Library

On June 20, 2011, the Renton City Council approved the sale of $18 million in bonds to fund work on the Renton and Renton Highlands libraries. The Renton Highlands Library would be built at a new location a few blocks south of the existing NE 12th Street site as part of the city's planned Sunset Area Community Revitalization Program. The council vote allowed KCLS to begin working with the firm THA Architecture (later renamed Hacker Architects) to design the Renton Highlands Library.

The major revitalization effort of which the Renton Highlands Library would be a key part was centered on property owned by the Renton Housing Authority in the city's Highlands neighborhood. The plans called for replacing the deteriorating, World War II-era Sunset Terrace public-housing development with a mix of affordable housing, businesses, and a park. KCLS and city officials planned for the Renton Highlands Library to be a focal point of a large pedestrian plaza in this new urban village.

In designing the Renton Highlands Library, the architects used aviation motifs, drawing on the city's long history with Boeing and the aircraft industry and designing the building to recall the architecture of early Boeing facilities. Situated on a busy street, the new library was planned with many windows and an open-space interior with only a few columns, reminiscent of an airplane hangar. Airplane motifs were featured in lighting fixtures and furniture, while red accent walls paid tribute to Boeing's Plant I, the famed "Red Barn" of the company's World War I years. While the old Highlands Library had been considered in its last years to be dark and gloomy, the new structure in contrast was light and airy, with solar shades added to minimize heat and sun in warm weather.

Following KCLS guidelines for green construction, the builders used local and recycled materials as well as roofing that reduced heat and filtered rainwater into a cistern for non-potable use. With the library easily accessible to local and regional transit, planners also added ample bicycle parking to encourage more library users to leave their cars at home. The building size of 15,000 square feet was more than double that of the previous structure, making it possible to double the number of computers available to patrons (from 12 to 24), increase the size of the collection, and provide more space for children and teens. Flexible floor arrangement and meeting room areas allowed for programs designed for all age groups, making the Renton Highlands Library a community center within the city's new Sunset revitalization project.

Incorporating the library into the larger Sunset Area Community Revitalization Program offered many pluses but it also complicated the construction process, leading to some delays. However, the new Renton Highlands Library opened on March 26, 2016, even as construction continued on an apartment complex next to the library and the city park behind it. Despite the construction outside, both patrons and staff were happy to see their new library open for service.

Like all cities in the booming Puget Sound region in the second decade of the twenty-first century, Renton faces the challenge of providing needed services to its rapidly increasing population. In addition to the city's residential population of around 100,000, thousands more who work in the area pass through daily on Interstate 405, several state highways, and the city's main streets. Both PACCAR and the Boeing Commercial Airplane Group remain in Renton, along with other industries and high-tech corporations. The city is also home to the Seattle Seahawks training camp.

The population of the Renton Highlands area is steadily becoming more diverse and there is an increasing need for materials for library patrons whose first language is not English. With its new building in the heart of the city's neighborhood revitalization project, the Renton Highlands Library is well-positioned to meet the evolving needs of current and future residents of the Highlands area, just as it has done for more than 70 years since KCLS opened the first library there to serve the influx of wartime workers and their families.


"About Renton Highlands Library," King County Library System (KCLS) website accessed January 9, 2017 (; "Renton Libraries Community Study," KCLS website accessed January 25, 2017 (; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Renton -- Thumbnail History" (by Alan J. Stein), "Boeing and Washington's Aerospace Industry, 1934-2015" (by Jim Kershner), "Skyway Library, King County Library System " (by Jim Kershner), "Fairwood Library, King County Library System" (by Jim Kershner), and "Renton Library, King County Library System" (by Linda Holden Givens) (accessed May 15, 2017); "Renton Highlands Library," Hacker Architects website accessed May 2, 2017 (; "Westlake Building Leased to Three Business Firms," The Seattle Times, September 6, 1936, p. 22; "U.S. Project to Have More Homes than Nearby Renton," Ibid., May 31, 1942, p. 1; Celeste Gracey, "Big Changes to Come to Renton Libraries, Open House Saturday,", April 29, 2010 (; Celeste Gracey, "Plans for New Renton Libraries Could Mean a Smaller Branch for Downtown," Ibid., August 2, 2010; Tracy Compton, "Renton City Council Moves Ahead with New Libraries in Downtown, Highlands," Ibid., June 22, 2011; Dean Radford, "Renton, KCLS Select Sites for Next Two Branch Libraries," Renton Reporter, March 9, 2011 (; Dean Radford, "Sunset Redevelopment to Boost Highlands," Ibid., April 4, 2011; Brian Beckley, "Council to Get Update on Highlands Library Project," Ibid., May 31, 2013; "Sunset Revitalization Plans Earns 2013 Smart Communities Award," Ibid., June 28, 2013; Leah Abraham, "Highlands Library Opening Delayed Again," Ibid., February 19, 2016; Leah Abraham, "New Highlands Library Finally Ready to Open," Ibid., March 25, 2016.

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