AKA: Seattle Public Library, Yesler, Henry L., Branch, Central District, Seattle, WA; Seattle Public Library, Douglass-Truth Branch, Central District, Seattle, WA

Structure Type: built works - social and civic buildings - libraries

Designers: Schacht | Aslani Architects (firm); Somervell and Thomas, Associated Architects (firm); Cima Malek-Aslani (architect); Walter Schacht (architect); Woodruff Marbury Somervell (architect); Irving Harlan Thomas (architect)

Dates: constructed 1913-1914

1 story, total floor area: 8,008 sq. ft.

2300 East Yesler Way
Central District, Seattle, WA 98122

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The Douglass-Truth Library was located at 23rd Avenue and East Yesler Way.

Overview

Architects Harlan Thomas (1870-1953) and Woodruff Marbury Somervell (1872-1938) designed this small library, built at about the same time that the Carnegie Corporation of New York was assisting the City of Seattle in building small, symmetrical branch libraries elsewhere in the city, e.g., Green Lake and the University District. Somervell, with his earlier partner, Joseph S. Cote (1874-1957), designed three branches and the original Central Library, also financed by Carnegie. Somervell later associated with Thomas, who would go on to a long and distinguished career as an architect and UW teacher, and they produced designs for three more Seattle branches erected between 1912-1915, this one, the Yesler Library, the Queen Anne Branch and the Columbia City Branch.

Building History

This 8,008-square-foot branch, unlike many of the period financed by the Carnegie Corporation, was paid for by the City of Seattle. It opened on 09/15/1914. Originally known as the Yesler Branch, for early Seattle pioneer and sawmill owner Henry Yesler (1810-1892), it was renamed for African-American abolitionist leaders, Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) and Sojourner Truth (née Isabella Baumfree, c. 1797-1883), in 1975.

Building Notes

Daniel B. Trefethen (1876-1970), President of the Seattle Public Library Board, described in the Twenty-fourth Annual Report of the Seattle Public Library (1914) the architectural style of the new Yesler Branch: "The building...is Italian renaissance in style, of buff tapestry brick, with terra cotta trimmings and roof of red mission tile. Mr. W. Marbury Somervell and Mr. Harlan Thomas were the architects." (See Twenty-fourth Annual Report of the Seattle Public Library, 1914, [Dearborn Printing Company, 1914], p. 6.)

Alteration

The Seattle Public Library expanded this branch in 2006 at a cost of $6.8 million, sourced from the $290.7 million raised in its 1998 "Libraries for All" bond issue. A new wing was added next to the original Yesler branch building. The reading room of the new wing was underground to avoid overwhelming the original library's small volume, while meeting rooms were placed above grade. The Seattle firm of Schacht | Aslani Architects supervised the design work on the addition and remodeling. This addition enhanced the library's storage capacity from a meager 14,000 printed volumes to a more reasonable 67,000 books plus other media. This doubled the square footage of the building from 8,008 to 16,493.

In his review of the new library addition, Seattle Post-Intelligencer architecture critic, Lawrence Cheek, observed, "Here's one last, politically incorrect thought: not all old buildings ought to be preserved. Every age produces its good, bad and mediocre architecture, and this 1914 building is an indifferent C. The 1960 International Style Central Library was only a shade or two worse, a C- or D+, and nobody lost a night's sleep over its early euthanasia. Would Seattle be a poorer place -- visually, culturally, spiritually -- if Schacht Aslani had built an all-new library on the Yesler site that had the verve and intelligence of this addition, minus the shackles of an unhappy marriage?" Cheek failed to acknowledge that the "mediocre" original building was made a Seattle Historic Landmark by a board of experts, which ascertained that its originality, historic importance and place in the neighborhood deserved recognition and preservation. Too frequently in his glib and dismissive columns, did Cheek overestimate the importance of aesthetics alone in determining a building's significance. His elitist standards for what made a building important were often inexpertly articulated and superficial. Fortunately, his reviews do not appear regularly in 2018.

PCAD id: 5368