On January 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. We first explore the stories of Andrew Carnegie, the donor; James Bertram, the manager of the Carnegie grants; and then focus on the building, its architects, and the history of this neighborhood jewel since 1914.
Designed by Seattle architects W. Marbury Somervell and Harlan Thomas, the building was constructed at a cost of $32,677 with a gift from the Carnegie Foundation along with $500 from The 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.1
The Queen Anne neighborhood is one of 1,689 lucky places in America to have a Carnegie public library, and ours is a quintessential example. It reflects the philanthropy of its primary donor, the clear-headedness of the person empowered to execute his plans, the work of important local architects, the footprint of many small Carnegie libraries, the generosity of powerful neighbors, the sometimes pettiness of Seattle citizens trying to do a good deed, and — judging by its more recent preservation — Seattle’s love of books and reading.
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.
As Carnegie wrote, “The man who dies thus rich, dies disgraced.”2
Born in Scotland in 1835, Carnegie immigrated with his parents at age 13 to the United States, settling in Allegheny, Pennsylvania. By 1890, a spate of successful investments including the Carnegie Steel Company made Carnegie one the richest people in the country. In 1901, he sold his steel company to J. P. Morgan, whose U.S. Steel Corporation 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 Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Institute of Technology — now part of Carnegie-Mellon University — and New York’s Carnegie Hall, the philanthropist’s most celebrated gifts were the 2,509 libraries throughout the English-speaking world constructed with grants totaling $56 million.3 The program resulted in 1,689 Carnegie public libraries in the United States.4 James Bertram, Carnegie’s secretary and the manager of the Carnegie Library Program, made his last gift in 1919. Andrew Carnegie donated $70,000 for the construction of the Queen Anne branch.5
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 ten 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. It specifically suggested a basement 9′-10′ high and four feet below natural grade, and a second level 12′-15′ high. 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 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.
Sited back from the street, the Queen Anne branch capitalizes on the neighborhood’s slopes. The building presents a simple, easily-read façade (Figure 2) to the street, articulating the library’s main functions. Form really follows function here. The two reading rooms on either 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 the deep red color of the English bond brickwork (Figure 3).6 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 (Figure 4) that flood the reading rooms with light. Light in libraries is a real need; but as Andrew Carnegie knew and insisted, it is also a metaphor for knowledge, learning and understanding. In the late 19th and early 20th c. 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 either 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 roof-line, and the terra cotta tiles that end them are all reflections of the Tudor Revival style7 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 W. 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 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 4th Ave. W., 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 c., 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 check-out 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 Andrew 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 (Figure 6) provides more evidence of Carnegie’s understanding of reading as enlightenment.
Harlan Thomas (1870-1953) was born in Iowa, but raised in Fort Collins, Colorado. 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 Hotel (now the Chelsea Apartments on Olympic Drive) and the 7th Church of Christ, Scientist (now the Church of Christ) at 2555 8th Avenue. Both of these buildings are City of Seattle Landmarks. The 7th Church of Christ Scientist owes its landmark status in part to the work of the Queen Anne Historical Society. Other extant Thomas projects include the Sorrento Hotel, the Seattle Chamber of Commerce Building, the first Harborview Hospital building, Bagley Hall at the University of Washington, Laurelhurst Church, and the Sand Point Community United Methodist Church. The Thomas House at 1401 8th Avenue, 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. The house was purchased by the Leyrer family in 1953, suggesting a sale at the time of Harlan’s death.8
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). The Columbia Library was also funded by Andrew Carnegie. Somervell practiced in Seattle from 1905 until 1918. Among his local work are city fire stations (#22 and #25), the Parson House on Queen Anne’s W. Highland Drive, and the Bishop’s House at Boren Avenue and Spring St. 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 St. The other group favored West Garfield at 7th Avenue West.9 Even a 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 class of the opposing parties. The library board was torn between the two sites. After a lengthy community tussle, it finally chose on April 191210 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 (1845-1915), Queen Anne resident and owner of The Seattle Times, jumped in with $500 to complete the site’s purchase.11 Had Blethen not acted, Queen Anne would have missed having a Carnegie library.
There are two public art projects in the Queen Anne Branch of the Seattle Public Library. In July 1978, Richard Spaulding completed the five 8.5 x 3.3. ft. panels installed in the windows along the north side of the library. Entitled “Quintet in D,” the stained glass windows reflect Spaulding’s training as a musician and, according to him, transcribe music into color and form with parabolic designs from radio magnetic charts of Seattle superimposed upon the visual musical transcription. “I put colors together the same way as music. It is an instinctive experience rather than an intellectual one,” Spaulding noted at the time of the installation.12 The project was produced through the cooperative efforts of the Seattle Public Library’s Eugene E. Atwood Bequest and Seattle Arts Commission’s CETA13 Artist in The City Program.
The second public art project in the library consists of two paintings completed as part of the 2007 Libraries for All levy that restored all five of the city’s Carnegie Libraries.14 Building on the ideas of learning, education and history, artist Denis Evans linked the libraries with paintings based on the seven liberal arts. Called the Seven Liberal Arts Suite, his work celebrates the seven branches of knowledge that initiate everyone into a life of learning.
Two paintings were created for each of the five Carnegie libraries by Dennis Evans. The series of ten paintings entitled “Seven Liberal Arts Suite” was completed in 2005. One of the paintings at each branch is known as a reference painting, and is similarly composed in each of the five libraries. It incorporates all seven branches of the liberal arts, and includes a “who’s-who” of great writers and thinkers and the ideas that made them famous. The second painting, unique to each library, creatively illustrates defining characteristics of one or two of the liberal arts. Together the colorful panels promote the historical connection that exists between the libraries, while separately they underscore the individuality of each branch and the learning opportunities it provides for the surrounding community. The five paintings in the branch libraries are: Queen Anne – Grammar (art of inventing and combining symbols), Greenlake – Rhetoric (art of communication), West Seattle – Logic (art of thinking), Fremont – Arithmetic (theory of numbers) and Music (application of the theory of number), University District – Geometry (theory of space) and Astronomy (application of the theory of space).15 These works also form part of the City of Seattle’s Public Art Collection.
As part of the Library Renaissance Fund Initiative of 1984,16 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 $853,523.17 A number of neighborhood philanthropists also supported the most recent round of work. They included Linda Larson and Gerry Johnson (Reading Area), Stuart Prestrud (Meeting Room), Anne Anderson Quested and Lois and Nelson Anderson (Children’s Area). The interior renovation includes new seating, improved ventilation, upgraded technology services and equipment, more electrical, communication and computer connections, more efficient circulation desk just inside the front door and switching the children’s space back to the west end, better acoustics in the meeting room, and an updated book collection.18 As noted, 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 1.19
For Further Reading
Articles at HistoryLink.org:
- Queen Anne Branch, The Seattle Public Library
- Queen Anne Branch, The Seattle Public Library opens January 1, 1914.
- Queen Anne Branch, The Seattle Public Library, reopens after renovations on August 25, 2007.
- Seattle Public Library – A Pictorial History of Times and Tomes Past – A Slideshow
1 David Wilma at historylink.org
2 Theodore Jones, Carnegie Libraries Across America, A Public Legacy, (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1997), p. 5.
4 Carnegie Free Public Library, Landmark Nomination Report, Larry Johnson, The Johnson Partnership, 2011, p. 11.
5 The 2007 renovation cost $853,523, more than 12 times the building’s cost.
6 English bond is characterized by alternating rows of headers and stretchers. At the Queen Anne Library, the use of English bond is one of the most delightful references to the Tudor style. The use of English bond suggests that the library may indeed have load-bearing brick walls. Note that the wall around the perimeter of the site is laid up in straight bond whose bricks are probably a veneer over a concrete structure that holds back the lawn. I guess the wall was not the work of the building’s architects, for even the bricks seem to be of a different color and quality.
7 In a photo caption in the society’s book Queen Anne on the Hill, describes the library as having been built in the English Gothic style, but without a Gothic arch to be seen anywhere on the building, it is probably best to call it a Tudoresque design. The arch over the entryway is definitely the most defining aspect of the library, and without a pointy gothic keystone, it is definitely more Tudor in spirit. Reinartz, Kay Frances. Queen Anne, Community on the Hill. Seattle, WA: Queen Anne Historical Society, 1993, p. 105.
8 http://web1.seattle.gov/dpd/historicalsite/QueryResult.aspx?ID=-1135824663. Cited March 14, 2013.
9 Seattle Daily Times, February 8, 1912, p. 8.
10 Annual Report of the Seattle Public Library, 1913.
11 https://www.historylink.org/File/2086. Cited March 14, 2013.
12 Undated black and white flyer apparently produced by the public library at the time of installation.
13 CETA stands for Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, a United States federal law enacted by the Congress, and signed into law by President Richard Nixon December 28, 1973 to train workers and provide them with jobs in the public service. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comprehensive_Employment_and_Training_Act).
14 Queen Anne, Greenlake, Fremont, University District Columbia, West Seattle and
16 Queen Anne Community on the Hill, 1973, p. 119.
17 The library provides conflicting information about the cost of the work. An undated library handout pegs the price as shown here; however, an online document (https://www.spl.org/hours-and-locations/queen-anne-branch/queen-anne-branch-highlights) has it at $909,000.
18 Seattle Public Library. Cited March 13, 2013.
19 Seattle City Clerk. Cited March 13, 2013.