Rain, coffee, cat ladies, and a robust literary arts community make Seattle one of the best cities in the world to curl up with a book. Seattle’s bookish heritage extends all the way back to the city’s earliest beginnings. Houses were built, a few buildings, a lumber mill, and then — libraries. Stunning, glorious, introvert-friendly libraries.
After two decades of book nerd community rabble-rousing, the first Seattle public library opened in 1891 on the fifth floor of the Occidental Building in Pioneer Square. According to Seattle Public Library lore, a lumber company vice-president checked out the first book, a brand new copy of Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad.
First Home of Seattle Public Library, ca. 1891.
The library relocated a few times until 1899 when it found a space in the Yesler Mansion, the city’s classiest former home. Henry Yesler had been a successful lumber industrialist, and his wife Sara was a well-known activist and intellectual. After the couple passed away, their 40-room mansion at 3rd Avenue and James Street was converted into Seattle’s main library. Annual circulation soared by 26 percent to 137,941 volumes in the new mansion, reports the SPL.
The Yesler Mansion converted into a library, ca. 1899.
The Yesler Mansion was nice and all, but library loyalists had hoped for a larger space to house all their beloved books. Seattle book worms attempted to persuade hip steel magnate, Andrew Carnegie to fund the Seattle library, but Carnegie declined because he considered Seattle nothing more than a “hot air boom town,” reports HistoryLink.
On New Year’s Day, 1901, the Yesler Mansion mysteriously burnt to the ground, losing 25,000 books and rousing overdue sympathy from Carnegie. Five days after the fire, Carnegie pledged over $200,000 to build a new Seattle Public Library.
The oddly convenient timing of the fire cast suspicion on city librarian, Charles Wesley Smith, who had been “complaining about his narrow quarters for a year,” and was spotted near the library, minutes after it went up in flames.
Ruins of Yesler Mansion fire, ca. 1901.
The new Carnegie-funded Central Library was designed by Peter J. Weber of Chicago. Weber beat out 30 other firms for the honor. The German-born architect created a Beaux-Arts design for the 55,000-square-foot structure, which featured massive pillars and spacious interiors.
Seattle Public Library Central Branch, 1906.
The Central Library was officially dedicated in 1906 during a gala attended by over 1,000 Seattle readers. The library was such a success that when Seattle annexed Ballard in 1907, Carnegie donated funds for a new Ballard branch.
Seattle Public Library Ballard Branch, 1911.
A Carnegie gift of $105,000 produced three more buildings. During two exciting weeks in 1910, Seattle readers flocked to the new branches to get their summer reading on strong. The first creation was the West Seattle Branch.
Seattle Public Library West Seattle Branch, 1910.
Followed by the…
Green Lake Branch Library, Seattle, ca. 1916.
University Branch Library, Seattle, ca. 1910.
An additional $70,000 donation from Carnegie resulted in two more branches, the Queen Anne Branch in 1914…
Seattle Public Library, Queen Anne Branch, 1955.
Photo: Werner Lengenhagger
And the Columbia Branch in 1915 (Thanks Carnegie!).
Seattle Public Library, Columbia Branch Library, ca. 1927.
In 1917, Carnegie offered $35,000 to build a library in Fremont on the condition that the City of Seattle pay for the land, books and staff. The Fremont branch was designed by architect Daniel R. Huntington who also came up with the Lake Union Steam Plant, the Wallingford police station, and the University Bridge piers, reports HistoryLink. Huntington designed the library in the mission style, a very unusual look for Seattle. He called the style “Italian Farmhouse.” The library remains a distinct landmark in the Fremont neighborhood with its stucco, red tile roof, arched windows, and high-gabled, open-beamed ceilings. In 1984, voters approved to renovate the Carnegie branch libraries. The Fremont branch earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places for its unique design.
Seattle Public Library, Fremont Branch, 1921.
The Fremont library was the end of the Carnegie library-era. It would be three decades before another library was built in Seattle. The new libraries of the 1950s and 1960s reflected a remarkably more modern style. Just look at the North East Branch designed by local Seattle architect, Paul Thiry. Times were changing, and Seattle would not be left behind.
Seattle Public Library, North East Branch, 1955.
Photo: Werner Lenggenhager
On March 26, 1960 architecture firm, Bindon & Wright, revealed the latest update to the Central Library on the same downtown site as the first Carnegie Central Library of 1906.
Seattle Central Library under construction, 1960.
The new 206,000 square-foot library cost $4.5 million and was built in the International style. The library featured the first escalator in an American library, a drive-up window for book pick-ups and the first noteworthy use of artwork in a Seattle public building. The first escalator in an American library! Does Seattle love books, or what?
Seattle Central Library, 1960.
Photo: Seattle Public Library
In 1964, quintessential northwest architect, Paul Hayden Kirk designed the Magnolia Branch and won a top national honor award for architecture from the American Library Association. The new library was a long time coming. In 1943, the demand for a library in Magnolia prompted locals to convert an old tavern and fill it with books. Volunteers assembled, books were donated, and local businesses took messages for Magnolia’s tavern librarians, reports HistoryLink.
Reference desk, Magnolia Public Library, 1966.
Budgets were tight for the Seattle Public libraries in the 1970s and 1980s. It wasn’t until the tech-boom of the 1990s that the libraries really hit their stride again. In 1991 the Seattle Public Library celebrated its 100th anniversary. The library system had recently completed an amazing $4.6 million restoration project on the six historic Carnegie branches. The project received a prestigious honor from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Seattle book nerds took their love of learning to the next level in 1998. Voters approved the largest library bond issue then ever submitted in the United States. EVER. The “Libraries for All” bond measure, proposed a $196.4 MILLION makeover of the Library system. The measure resulted in four new libraries in communities without library service, the replacement, expansion or renovation of 22 existing branches, and a stunning new Central Library.
Award-winning Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Prince-Ramus of Seattle-based LMN Architects, won the bid to design the jaw-dropping structure full of knowledge. The finished library has 11 floors totaling 362,987 square feet and dazzling features including a “Books Spiral” that displays the entire nonfiction collection in a continuous run, a towering “living room” along Fifth Avenue that reaches 50 feet in height, and a distinctive diamond-shaped exterior of glass and steel.
Central Library, 2004.
Reading never looked so good, Seattle.