Seattle Now & Then: The Seattle Public Library’s Green Lake Branch, 1910

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN1: The Green Lake Branch of the Seattle Public Library, just before opening its doors in July 1910. Most likely librarian Mayme Batterson and children’s librarian Loretta Cole are posed among the threesome on the front steps. (Courtesy Museum of History & Industry)
NOW1: Today’s Green Lake Branch perches above the shores of one of Seattle’s most popular parks. In 2019, voters approved a levy to earthquake-proof the building, which will re-open in 2024. (Jean Sherrard)

Published in The Seattle Times online on July 6, 2023
and in PacificNW Magazine of the printed Times on July 9, 2023

Renovations will bolster Green Lake’s ‘heart of the community’
By Jean Sherrard

While today’s billionaires are blowing up rockets in Earth’s lower atmosphere and dreaming of colonizing Mars, one of the richest men in the world at the dawn of the 20th century devoted himself to building an enduring legacy of brick and mortar.

Industrialist, bibliophile and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) emigrated from Scotland to the United States with his working-class parents in 1847. At 13, he worked in an Allegheny cotton mill, changing bobbins 6 days a week, 12 hours a day. From these unlikely beginnings, Carnegie’s industrial innovations and political machinations resulted in a vast steel empire.

A notorious strikebreaker noted for paying his workers abysmally low wages, the complicated robber baron also publicly supported progressive tax laws, including estate taxes. Famously he insisted, “The man who dies rich, dies in disgrace.”

Philanthropist Andrew Carnegie in 1913, age 78. His sale of Carnegie Steel to US Steel in 1901 made him one of the richest men of his era.

Indeed, by the time of his death, Carnegie had donated 90% of his wealth, largely in funding construction of 2,509 libraries throughout the English-speaking world — 1,689 in the United States alone.

Moreover, committed to wide accessibility of literature and reading, Carnegie promoted unrestricted “open stack” policies, encouraging library patrons to browse freely among shelves of books.

One of 7 extant Carnegie library buildings in Seattle, the Green Lake Branch was built on land purchased chiefly by neighborhood contributions. Carnegie’s foundation fronted $35,000 (around $1.2 million in today’s dollars) for construction of the two-story edifice.

Designed by Seattle architects Woodruff Somerville and Joseph Cote in French Renaissance Revival style while hewing to Carnegie’s prescriptions, the elegant structure has more than held its own, nominated to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982 and designated a Seattle landmark in 2001.

Dawn Rutherford, the Seattle Public Library’s interim northwest regional manager, and Elisa Murray, digital communications specialist, provide reflections at the branch, the first of three unreinforced masonry Carnegie library structures to be shuttered for seismic retrofitting, ADA accessibility upgrades, conversion to an electric heat pump system and significant interior renovations.

Library staffers Elisa Murray (left) and Dawn Rutherford look up from a freshly dug pit where seismically reinforced foundations are to be poured. Project engineer Jordan B. and superintendent Danny Werven (right) examine exposed glacial till. “Almost as hard as concrete,” Werven says. (Jean Sherrard)

Will Carnegie’s investment in libraries continue to yield dividends in today’s digital era? “The more we’re online,” Rutherford says, “the more we need a physical place that we can come together.” For young and old, she says, seeking to understand and adapt to changing technologies, libraries remain “the beating heart of the community.”

Besides, Murray adds, “People still love their books, and at the library, books are our baseline.”

Not having died with the most toys, Carnegie, a man of seemingly irreconcilable contradictions, left behind gifts that will enrich and enlighten terrestrial communities for generations to come.


More interior photos of seismic and facility improvements:

The original commemorative plaque
Preparing the library’s foundation for new footings to support the retrofit.
The former children’s section
Construction seen from the main floor
From left, Elisa Murray, Dawn Rutherford, Jordan B. and Danny Werven stand above the abyss.


2 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: The Seattle Public Library’s Green Lake Branch, 1910”

  1. Fascinating, how lucky we are to have received the funding for the library. What a beautiful landmark and glad to hear it is getting retrofitted for an earthquake. We need to preserve our history.

  2. I remember going to that library as a child in the late 50’s when our family lived in Viewridge, we met relatives at that library.

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