Henry Branch, The Seattle Public Library, and its Neighborhood

  • By Alan J. Stein and Paula Becker
  • Posted 12/06/2000
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 2868
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The Susan J. Henry Branch, The Seattle Public Library, was located at 425 Harvard Avenue E on Seattle's Capitol Hill. Opened on August 26, 1954, the Henry Library was named for Susan J. Henry (1854-1921), wife of the Seattle capitalist Horace C. Henry (1844-1928). In 1934, their surviving sons, Langdon C. Henry and Paul M. Henry donated the Horace C. Henry home and 12 lots at the northwest corner of Harvard Avenue N and Prospect Street to The Seattle Public Library. The gift was named for their mother. This property was later sold to pay for the present site. Construction of a permanent branch of the Seattle Public Library in the Capitol Hill neighborhood was delayed for two decades by the Great Depression, World War II, and a chronic lack of city funds (although temporary deposit stations and branches served the area). The Henry Branch building was designed by Naramore, Bain, Brady, and Johanson (NBBJ) architects, and served for many years as a home of Seattle's Library for the Blind and as a base for the Bookmobile program. The Susan J. Henry Memorial Branch building was replaced under the 1998 "Libraries for All" bond issue. The new branch opened on the same site in 2003 and is called the Capitol Hill Branch.

A Gift to and from Millionaire's Row

Seattle's Capitol Hill community is capped by Volunteer Park, originally called Lake View Park. This parkland was bought from James Colman in 1876, but it was not until the early 1900s that the park was shaped into its current design by the noted landscape architectural firm of the Olmsted Brothers.

Also during the early 1900s, the neighborhood south of Volunteer Park was transformed into Millionaire’s Row, where many of Seattle’s richest families built elegant mansions. Railroad tycoon Horace C. Henry headed one of these families. Henry built the original rail line around Lake Washington for the Northern Pacific Railroad, along with other NP lines throughout the region.

Henry and his wife, Susan, were leading Seattle philanthropists. Among many other donations, they provided land north of Seattle on which the Anti-tuberculosis League of King County built a municipal sanatorium (initially called the Henry Sanatorium, then Firland Sanatorium). After his wife's death, Horace Henry gave close to a half million dollars worth of art and funds to construct the Henry Art Gallery to the University of Washington.  In 1934, six years after their father's death, the Henry sons donated the family mansion and surrounding property on Capitol Hill to the City of Seattle with the understanding that it would be used for a branch library named after Susan Henry. The gift continued a family tradition of large gifts intended to memorialize family members: the sanatorium land had been giving in memory of Langdon and Paul Henry's brother Walter Henry (1883-1910), who died of tuberculosis as a young man. The Florence Henry Memorial Chapel in The Highlands was constructed in memory of their sister Florence Henry (1886-1904), who died of peritonitis following a burst appendix while still in her teens. The Susan J. Henry Memorial Way (now commonly referred to as Memorial Way) on the University of Washington campus was a landscaping beautification project undertaken by Horace Henry to honor his late wife's love of gardening. Langdon and Paul Henry intended that a library on the land they gave the library would memorialize their mother.

Twenty Fallow Years

But economics and world events intervened. In 1932, the Great Depression and chronic lack of city funds had caused the shutdown of the Mission Pharmacy deposit station (at 901 19th Avenue), which had served the area since 1913. In 1944, another deposit station opened at Pilgrim Congregational Church at 509 10th Avenue E. It operated until 1954. Construction of a permanent branch on Capitol Hill  was included in 1950 and 1952 bond issues, but voters rejected both proposals. (The Aloha Branch at 1911 E Aloha operated in rented space from 1948 to 1961).

The question of how to best utilize the Henry mansion and property was frequently pondered at library board meetings. Strapped by lack of funds during the 1930s, the board rankled at the cost of hiring a gardener and caretaker for the property. Neighbors complained that the gardens were not being maintained.  A number of groups borrowed the space but none was able to fund a more permanent rental arrangement that would have generated income until branch building funds materialized. 

The library board engaged the architecture firm of Bebb & Gould , which  assessed the 1904 mansion and its art gallery annex.  Bebb & Gould reported that neither building could be successfully remodeled for use as a library.  On April 9, 1935, the board voted to raze the mansion and other buildings on the site. At the request of Seattle mayor Charles L. Smith, demolition was postponed for six months. The Cosmo Wrecking Company began demolition on November 9, 1936, and by April 15, 1937, the process was complete.

The Henry property sat idle through the rest of the Great Depression and through World War II.  On October 4, 1948, members of the library board met with the Henry family about divesting themselves of the property so that they could build a branch more central to the Capitol Hill business district.  A complicated sequence of real-estate transfers followed, eventually resulting in the library's purchase of property at the corner of Harvard Avenue E and E Republican Street.  When the library purchased that property, it was the site of an aging 1907 mansion that had once been home to prominent Seattleite Emma Baillargeon Stimson (1887-1963).  Stimson requested, and was granted, permission to remove a section of paneling from the house.  A small piece of this panel, and a picture of the Baillargeon mansion, are now (2009) displayed in the Capitol Hill Branch.

A Branch At Last

In 1953, the Seattle City Council dipped into general city reserves and was able to find $492,000 for three new branches -- North East, Greenwood, and Susan Henry. The new library building was designed by the architectural firm of Naramore Bain Brady and Johanson (NBBJ) and opened on August 26, 1954. The lower level of the building housed the Library for the Blind, and the upper floor was the Henry Memorial Branch. It also served as the base for the library's Bookmobile service.

The split-level building was immediately lauded, as noted in the 1956 Branch Report:

"With an exterior of Wilkeson stone and its modern spacious interior, this building has received high praise for its striking architecture and beauty of design. That it has attracted national attention is evidenced by the fact that it has been written up in several architectural magazines as an outstanding example of the modern library building which is beautiful as well as functional" (Susan J. Henry Memorial Library Annual Report, 1956).

An Urban Community

From the Henry Branch's inception, annual reports note the neighborhood's relative lack of children, as compared to other parts of the city. The first annual report noted that many patrons coming in for services "had not been using any public library facilities for some time.  Predominantly an apartment house area, there are many elderly persons living in the district.  Repeatedly Central library cards, which had expired some time ago, were presented for renewal, with the statement that the person was no longer physically able to get to the Central library" (Susan J. Henry Memorial Library Annual Report, 1954).

According to the 1990 census, Capitol Hill (including First Hill) is home to approximately 42,500 people, with a smaller share of children but a higher proportion of middle age groups compared with the rest of the city -- 8.5 percent of the population is less than 15 years of age compared to 15 percent citywide, and 61.4 percent are between 16 and 44 compared to 53.4 percent citywide. Ethnic diversity and education levels are comparable to city averages.

Households in the district are slightly smaller than those in the rest of the city with a much greater share of renter occupied units (68 percent) compare to the citywide average of 48.6 percent. The area also has a much lower percentage of single family housing units (21 percent) compared to the citywide average of 53 percent. Much of this is attributable to the proximity to local institutions of higher education: Seattle Central Community College, Cornish College of the Arts, and Seattle University.

Incomes tend to be slightly higher in the district, with median family incomes at $46,501 compared to $39,860 citywide. Median household incomes are smaller, due to smaller hold sizes. The district also has a slightly higher poverty rate -- 16.3 percent compared to 12.4 percent citywide.

Population increases between the years 1980 and 1990 show an increase in population size, but a decrease in the number of families. The population of the district under the age of 5 decreased by 2 percent, and the population aged 65 years increased by 20 percent. During the same period, the number of people of color increased by 3 percent, while the white population increased by 4 percent.

Changing Needs 

In 1973 the Library for the Blind moved to larger quarters.  Mobile Services outgrew their space, moving out of the Henry Library in 1997.  The Henry Branch was updated in 1986, but its split-level design, initially considered so architecturally pleasing, ultimately created circulation and accessibility problems that could not be remedied. The Henry Library closed on November 3, 2001, and the building was demolished. 

On February 23, 1999, the Library Board adopted a policy limiting the use of personal names to areas within libraries, rather than to libraries themselves. This policy impacted all new, rebuilt, or relocated branches.  With the exception of the Douglass-Truth Branch and the Madrona-Sally Goldmark Branch, The Seattle Public Library's branch names indicate the neighborhoods in which they are built 

The renamed Capitol Hill Branch opened in its new building on May 31, 2003. The 11,215-square-foot building was designed by Johnston Architects and Cutler Architects. A 400-square-foot neighborhood service center is located on the mezzanine level. The new building is more than twice the size of the old one and can hold 40,000 books.

Branch Managers

  • Edith Cleaves, 1954-1960
  • Phoebe Harris, 1961-1962
  • Chloe Sivertz, 1963-1965
  • Ching-yen Hsiao, 1966-1967
  • Ryo Tsai, 1968-1977
  • Regional Management, 1977-1990
  • Rae Bass, 1990-2006 
  • Nancy Slote, 2006-present


Susan Boyle et al., Draft "Landmark Nomination of the Susan J. Henry Library" (Seattle: BOLA Architecture + Planning, October 2000); Andra Addison, Communications Director, Seattle Public Library, to www.historylink.org, April 15, 2003. Building data based on Seattle Public Library records. Census data from City of Seattle, King County, and U.S. Bureau of the Census reports; "Seattle Public Library Directory of Staff, 1967-1970" (bound together, Northwest History Collection, The Seattle Public Library; Seattle Public Library uncataloged archival materials, Box 4, "Personnel Staff Day," folders "Staff Directory 1950," and "Staff Directory 1956," and "Staff Directory 1960-1969," and unmarked folder containing staff directories 1970-1977, Seattle, Washington; Seattle Public Library uncataloged archival materials, Box 4, "Personnel Staff Day," folders "Staff Directory 1950," and "Staff Directory 1956," and "Staff Directory 1960-1969," and unmarked folder containing staff directories 1970-1977, Seattle, Washington; 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; "Donor Recognition in Library Buildings," Seattle Public Library Policy, adopted February 23, 1999, Series 1, Policies folder, Box 1, Board of Trustees Library Archives, Seattle Room, Central Branch, The Seattle Public Library, Seattle; Noble Hoggson, A Biography of Horace Chapin Henry, 1844-1928 (Seattle: The Craftsman Press, 1960); "Susan J. Henry Memorial Library Annual Report," folder "Henry Library 1954-1974, Annual Reports," and "Henry Branch Closes a Chapter," folder Henry Branch 1954-2002 Press Releases, and folder "Henry Library Site Demolition (1937), and folder "Henry Library Site Selection," Box 12: Henry Branch, High Point Branch, Holly Park Branch, Indian Library, International District Branch, Seattle Public Libraries Archives, Seattle Room, Central Branch, The Seattle Public Library, Seattle.
Note: This essay was extensively revised on March 15, 2009.

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