AKA: Seattle Public Library, Carnegie Library #1, Seattle, WA; Seattle Public Library, Central Library #1, Seattle, WA

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

Designers: Somervell and Cote, Architects (firm); Weber, P.J., Architect (firm); Joseph Simon Cote (architect); Woodruff Marbury Somervell (architect); Peter J. Weber (architect)

Dates: constructed 1904-1906, demolished 1957

3 stories

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1000 4th Avenue
Downtown, Seattle, WA 98104-1109

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Fourth Avenue between Spring Street and Madison Street.


The Carnegie Corporation of New York financed the construction of thousands of public libraries across the US during the last years of the nineteenth and the first decades of the twentieth centuries. For many places, the construction of a new public lending library became a sign of cultural maturity, replacing makeshift or improvised spaces with a dedicated and technologically modern facility. For Seattle, this shift was tremendous, as the previous main library was located in Henry Yesler's old, Queen Anne Style mansion, that burned in 1901. This stylistically up-to-date Beaux-Arts building, designed by two well-educated and prominent architects, W. Marbury Somervell (1872-1936) and Joseph S. Coté (1874-1957), became a cultural center for the city for many years. Seattle's first public art exhibition space (a forerunner of the Seattle Art Museum) occupied space here.

Building History

A grand, Beaux-Arts-styled Carnegie Library, Seattle's first Main Downtown Library opened to the public, 12/19/1906, located on the Meacham Block parcel of downtown Seattle, WA; Carnegie donated $220,000 to be matched by the city to build its first main library facility; previously, the Seattle Public Library had occupied spaces on the fifth floor of the Collins Block (1894-1896), the second floor of the Rialto Building (1896-1899), and the Henry and Sarah Yesler House (1899-1901). The loss of the 25,000-volumes stored in the Yesler Mansion in 1901 served as a jolt to the community, prompting it to seek rebuilding funds from Carnegie.

The Seattle Public Library staged a two-part competition for the design of its main facility.

Raised in NY State, Charles Wesley Smith (1887-1956), a lawyer by training, served as the Librarian of the Seattle Public Library from 1895-1907, and it was he who campaigned most strenuously for the new building's construction. Smith resigned on 09/30/1907, just after the construction of the city's new Carnegie Library to work as WA State Examiner of Municipal Corporations. His successor as City Librarian, G.A.C. Rochester, said of Smith: "Mr. Smith's decision to leave library work and resume the practice of law was deeply regretted by his friends in Seattle and in the library world. The splendid record of growth of the library during the twelve years of his administration and the present high standing of the institution in the community are the best tributes to his faithful and energetic service." (See Seventeenth Annual Report of the Seattle Public Library, [Dearborn Printing Company, 1908], p. 5.)

Building Notes

The 17th Annual Report of the Seattle Public Library, written by Rochester, reflected on the SPL Main Library's first year of operation, 1906-1907: "The new central library building was formally opened to the public December 19. 1906, and this report therefore covers the first full year in the new quarters. The circulation of books for home use increased from 302,203 in 1906 to 454,735 in 1907, a gain of 50 per cent. While this record of circulation is perhaps the most tangible evidence of the library's growth and usefulness, other departments of the work show a corresponding growth. The six reading rooms for public use have been crowded from the first, and the wisdom of the Board in following Mr. Carnegie's advice to plan the building for future extension is already apparent. This increase in the use of the library is the best possible evidence that Mr. Carnegie's generosity is appreciated by the people of Seattle. It also proves that the mere transfer of a library to a beautiful and adequate home, properly located, adds largely to its effectiveness." (See Seventeenth Annual Report of the Seattle Public Library, [Dearborn Printing Company, 1908], p. 6.)

The Seattle Public Library Main Library #1 had a men's reading room in 1918.


Foundations of this grand building were disrupted by tunnel boring activities of the Great Northern Railway, owned by James J. Hill (1838-1916). The City of Seattle Library sued to recover damages. New front stairs had to be built c. 1908, to allow pedestrians to reach the library during a regrading project of 4th Avenue. At that time, City Engineer R.H. Thomson (1856-1949) lowered the level of 4th Avenue ten feet. Architects Somervell and Coté were selected to design two new, terraced staircases and entrance ways to the Seattle Public Library during the 1908-1909 project. Somervell and Coté was one of seven firms that submitted designs for the new stairs and entryways. Their stairs were to be constructed of Tenino Stone. Shrubbery was planted at the rear of the central library by a landscape gardener in 1914. (See Daniel B. Trefethen, Twenty-fourth Annual Report of the Seattle Public Library, 1914, [Dearborn Printing Company, 1914], p. 6.) Two levels of underground storage were added under the main Seattle Carnegie Library c. 1946-1947; the stacks spanned the distance from Madison Street to Spring Street and half the way from Fourth Avenue to Fifth Avenue;


Seattle's first purpose-built main library was torn down in 09/1957.

PCAD id: 4097