On Jan. 1, 2013, our wonderful Queen Anne branch of the Seattle Public Library entered its 100th year of service, making it a good time now to refresh our memory of its history. The first part of this story focuses on the building. In an upcoming issue, we’ll explore the stories of Andrew Carnegie, the donor; James Bertram, the manager of the Carnegie grants; and the architects of this neighborhood jewel.
The Queen Anne neighborhood is one of 1,689 lucky places in America to have a public library donated around the turn of the 20th century by Pittsburgh steel baron Andrew Carnegie.
Sited back from the street, the Queen Anne branch capitalizes on the neighborhood’s slopes. The building presents a simple, easily read façade to the street, articulating the library’s main functions.
Form really follows function here: The two reading rooms on each side of the entrance are marked by a strip of six segmentally, arched windows of small, leaded panes. The terra cotta window surrounds stand out against deep-red color of the English bond brickwork.
East of the entrance, a third set of simple, flat, arched windows below the terra cotta water table separating the floors marks the lower-level community room.
The broad sweep of the gable roof suggests the high interior ceilings. The gable end walls are filled with huge, two-story windows that flood the reading rooms with light.
Light in libraries is a real need, but as Carnegie knew and insisted, it is also a metaphor for knowledge, learning and understanding. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, not only were libraries poorly lit by electricity, but also for newly literate populations, they had become places for individual learning and upward social mobility. It is no surprise then that there are windows everywhere in Queen Anne’s Carnegie library.
It is also quite marvelous that the building’s architects managed to incorporate stunning windows in the gable end walls. With windows taking up nearly half of those wall surfaces, natural light pours into the reading rooms on each end.
The end walls are capped by stepped terra cotta parapets that rise above the steep gable roof behind them. The caps at the peak of the roofline and the terra cotta tiles that end them are all reflections of the Tudor Revival style the architects had chosen.
A low cross gable at the rear of the building covers the space where stacks and the original area for the librarian are located.
A large, offset chimney marks the very rear of the library. Its terra cotta chimney pot is reminiscent of the English Tudor style that inspired other building details, including the lamps flanking the main and community-room entrances.
Along West Garfield Street, the street rises and the library sits up high above a wall. Steps from the sidewalk begin an architectural promenade that sweeps visitors up to the front door along a path across the lawn and up a second set of steps to the white terra cotta arch that frames the entrance and beckons them to anticipate the joys of reading and learning.
A recessed front porch with a very English coffered ceiling shelters the visitor, while the glass panel set in the large, oak front door suggests a transparent experience. The swirls of the door’s hardware are not unlike those of nearby period homes and bind the building to the community.
Along Fourth Avenue West, a cut in the brick wall provides street-level access to the community gathering place that James Bertram recommended. At the northwest corner, the reading rooms can also be entered at grade off the alley. Although handicap access was not mandated in the first part of the 20th century, the easy access to the reading and community rooms at grade is a refreshingly modern touch.
Special as it may be for us, in plan, our Carnegie Library is much like so many across the country. The east side serves adult readers; the west side is set apart for children and their books. Local architects W. Marbury Somervell and Harlan Thomas followed Carnegie guidelines, creating a space for librarians facing the front door, where they could assist readers and, before modern improvements, check books out.
Recent alterations moved the checkout activities to the corridor between the two reading rooms; however, they have not changed the flood of light from the windows on the north, east and west elevations.
The high ceilings suggested by the donor and respected by our local architects are among the most characteristic aspects of the small building.
The library’s interior has few decorative features to detract visitors from its primary purpose, but those few it has metaphorically express Carnegie’s fundamental belief that all citizens had the right to be enlightened by books, reading and the knowledge that comes from them.
Leaded-glass panels separate the reading rooms from the central corridor allow natural light to flow from the proportionally large windows at the east and west ends of the library.
Just in case the message wasn’t clear, small corbels incised with the word “LUX,” (Latin for “light”) terminate the central corridor and mark the points at which visitors turn the corner to the two reading rooms and the books. Similar corbels also mark the corners of the two reading areas.
The entablature over the doorway to the Carnegie library in Edinburgh, Scotland provides more evidence of Carnegie’s understanding of reading as enlightenment.
MICHAEL HERSCHENSOHN is president of the Queen Anne Historical Society (www.qahistory.org). To comment on this column, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.