HISTORY IN PERSPECTIVE | Queen Anne's Carnegie Library: Let there be light II
Friday, May 10, 2013 9:53 AM
We previously explored the wonderful Queen Anne Branch of the Seattle Public Library as it entered its 100th year of service. In our first article, we focused on the building’s physical features. Today, we explore the stories of donor Andrew Carnegie; James Bertram, the manager of the Carnegie grants; the architects; and the preservation history of this jewel, which has served our neighborhood since it opened on Jan. 1, 1914.
The Harlan Thomas House (1401 Eighth Ave. W.), built in 1909, reflects the European influence for which the architect namesake was known. Photo courtesy of Queen Anne Historical Society
The library is the design of Seattle architects W. Marbury Somervell and Harlan Thomas and was constructed at a cost of $32,677, with a gift from the Carnegie Foundation, supplanted by $500 from Seattle Times publisher and Queen Anne resident Alden J. Blethen (1845-1915). The City of Seattle paid $6,500 for the building site, which had been a subject of neighborhood discord.
As previously noted, Queen Anne is one of 1,689 lucky neighborhoods in America to have a Carnegie public library.
Not unlike Queen Anne’s contemporary philanthropists Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, Andrew Carnegie vowed to give away most of his wealth during his lifetime, and he succeeded, leaving his heirs a modest $10 million when he died in 1919.
Born in Scotland in 1835, Carnegie immigrated with his parents at age 13 to the United States, settling in Allegheny, Penn. By 1890, a spate of successful investments including the Carnegie Steel Co. made Carnegie one the richest people in the country.
In 1901, he sold his steel company to J. P. Morgan, whose U.S. Steel Corp. exercised a near-monopoly in the industry. Although tainted by the Homestead Strike of 1888, when private Pinkerton cops and an anti-union governor caused the death of strikers and a few cops, Carnegie’s place in the annals of American history is assured by his charity.
Known for funding New York’s Carnegie Hall and Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Institute of Technology (now part of Carnegie-Mellon University), the philanthropist’s most celebrated gifts were the 2,509 libraries throughout the English-speaking world, constructed with grants totaling $56 million. The program resulted in 1,689 Carnegie public libraries in the United States.
James Bertram, Carnegie’s secretary and the manager of the Carnegie Library Program, made his last gift in 1919, the year Carnegie died.
The philanthropist donated $70,000 to build the Queen Anne branch.
Andrew Carnegie liked to distance himself from the day-to-day management of his money, companies and charities. Consequently, James Bertram, administered daily operation and funding of the library program.
Bertram routinely made grants, and no city willing to meet his conditions was denied funding. Prior to 1908, he required that each community supply the site and authorize an annual maintenance of 10 percent of the total amount contributed by the program. He further stipulated that a grant would be made only to a city government and only upon formal application signed by the mayor.
Bertram did not have any rules on where the library should be built and did not interfere with the decisions of local officials. After 1908, however, Bertram required cities to submit architectural drawings for approval, and after 1911, grant recipients and their architects had to consider the suggestions and sample layouts in a book by Bertram entitled “Notes on Library Buildings.”
This book drew upon the thinking of the leading architects of the time on library design. It recommended against elaborate entrances and excessive space for library staff use. The high ceilings and the second-level public areas suggested by Bertram resulted in spacious interior rooms with splendid natural lighting and ventilation.
The most commonly adopted of the suggested plans matches the Queen Anne branch. It called for a main floor with an adult reading area on one side, a children’s area on the other, with the librarian’s desk between the two, facing the centrally located the front door.
Even though, after 1908, Bertram insisted on the implementation of his ideas about basic design, he avoided influencing the libraries' architectural style other than insisting that the building be “dignified.” In many cases, a dignified design meant elevating the entrance above grade, so that approaching the building, the user looked up to a higher level of learning and knowledge.
Harlan Thomas (1870-1953) was born in Iowa but raised in Fort Collins, Colo. After training in Denver and extensive European travels, he moved to Seattle in 1906.
Among the projects by Thomas that are still standing in Queen Anne are the Chelsea Family Hotel (now the Chelsea Apartments on Olympic Drive) and the Seventh Church of Christ Scientist (now the Church of Christ) at 2555 Eighth Ave. W. Both of these buildings are City of Seattle Landmarks. The Seventh Church of Christ Scientist owes its landmark status in part to the work of the Queen Anne Historical Society.
The Harlan House at 1401 Eighth Ave. W., built in 1909, just below the Willcox Wall, reflects the European influence for which he is particularly known. It is not clear how long Thomas lived here, although his wife is listed as the owner in 1937. They apparently rented the house while actually living close to the University of Washington.
In addition to his practice, Thomas was a professor of architecture and director of the School of Architecture at the University of Washington from 1926 until 1940.
On the Queen Anne, Columbia and Henry L. Yesler (now Douglass-Truth) libraries, Thomas partnered with W. Marbury Somervell (né MacCafferty, 1872-1938).
Somervell practiced in Seattle from 1905 until 1918. Among his local work are city fire stations (Nos. 22 and 25), Queen Anne’s Parson House at 618 W. Highland Drive, the Bishop’s House at Boren Avenue and Spring Street.
Somervell partnered with Joseph Coté on the city’s Central Library (destroyed 1957), also a Carnegie Library.
He left Seattle in 1918 and died in Los Angeles in 1938, following a distinguished career there.
The site fight
Accounts of the disagreement over where to put the library simply pit a small group of ladies from the extreme west side of Queen Anne against a much larger group from the east and central portions of the neighborhood.
The eastern group claiming to represent the most heavily settled portion of the hill favored the site at Queen Anne Avenue and West Garfield Street. The other group favored West Garfield at Seventh Avenue West. Even hundred years after the fact, knowing the size of homes in the various parts of Queen Anne, it would be reasonable to guess that the disagreement had its roots in the different social classes of the opposing parties.
The library board was torn between the two sites. In April 1912, after a lengthy community tussle, the board finally chose a compromise site at Fourth Avenue West and West Garfield Street as the best spot to locate the new branch.
Time was running out, for Carnegie was just about ready to withdraw the funds for the building when the library board committed its $6,700, and Col. Alden Blethen, Queen Anne resident and owner of The Seattle Times, jumped in with $500 to complete the site’s purchase. Had Blethen not acted, Queen Anne would have missed having a Carnegie library.
As part of the Library Renaissance Fund Initiative of 1984, a new slate roof replaced the original one, brickwork was repaired, plumbing, heating and electrical systems improved and the interior refurbished with new oak cabinets.
The improved library reopened in 1989, with a handicapped entrance on the west side and seismic protection.
The 1998 Libraries for All referendum funded the 2007 renovations. They were designed by Hoshide Williams Architects and built by Biwell Construction Inc. The work was completed at a cost of $853,523.
The interior renovation included more efficient circulation desk just inside the front door and switching the children’s space back to the west end.
The library added stained-glass windows on the north façade in 1977. On March 24, 2003, the City Council passed Ordinance 121101 designating the library a City of Seattle Landmark. Mayor Greg Nickels signed the ordinance on April 1.
MICHAEL HERSCHENSOHN in president of the Queen Anne Historical Society (www.qahistory.org). To comment on this column, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.