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Renton Library, King County Library System

  • By Linda Holden Givens
  • Posted 5/11/2017
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20356

The Renton Library occupies a unique site. Since 1966, it has spanned the Cedar River that flows through the heart of the city of Renton at the south end of Lake Washington. Renton had a library as early as 1903, when the Renton Coal Miners Association maintained a small book collection in downtown commercial buildings. In 1914, the city opened the Renton Carnegie Library on Bronson Way. The Carnegie Library served the community for 52 years until the Renton Public Library opened in 1966 as the first and so far only library in the U.S. built over a river. City voters approved the Renton Library's annexation to the King County Library System (KCLS) in 2010, and in 2015 the city and KCLS completed an award-winning renovation of the library.

Settling and Naming Renton

The city of Renton is located a dozen miles southeast of Seattle at the southern end of Lake Washington, straddling the mouth of the Cedar River. Renton occupies a central location in the region, with the cities of Tacoma, Bellevue, and Seattle all within a short driving distance.

From the 1850s through the 1870s, newly arriving settlers claimed land in the area that would become the city of Renton. Early homesteaders included Henry H. Tobin (d. 1857) and Diana Gilman Tobin (1829-1894), Erasmus Smithers (1830-1900), Christian Clymer (1833-1879), William P. Smith, David Mauer, Daniel M. Pierce, Luther S. Rogers, and William S. Rogers. The area at the time had no official name. In 1857, Smithers met and married Henry Tobin's widow Diana. Diana Smithers still owned her late husband's claim so together they owned a large amount of land. Erasmus Smithers filed the first plat for the Town of Renton on September 4, 1875.

The newly platted town was named for Captain William Renton (1818-1891), with accounts differing as to exactly why he became the namesake. One version asserts that Smithers, along with L. B. Morris and C. B. Shattuck, picked the name because they felt indebted to Renton for starting a nearby coal mine. Best known as a lumberman, William Renton was also an important investor in the coal trade and one of the most successful businessmen in Washington Territory.

Early Libraries

By 1880 Renton was a small coal-mining town with a population of about 300. In 1900 the population had reached 1,176. On September 6, 1901, Renton was incorporated. By 1903, the Renton Coal Miners Association established a small library, acquiring and managing a collection of donated books. The coal miners in the association owned and operated the Renton Coal Mining Company (previously known as the Renton Co-operative Company).

The association's library originally occupied a space above the general store owned by Robert Woods Sr. on the corner of Walla Walla Avenue and Main Street. It later moved to the second floor of Brendell's Drug Store on S 3rd Street and Wells Avenue S in downtown Renton. The first librarian was Blanche Pritchard Hughes (1884-1963), who received a salary of $35 per month. By 1907, the Coal Miners Association gave the book collection to Renton High School.

Neva Jane Bostwick Douglas and the Carnegie Library

Renton reported a population of 2,740 in the 1910 census. The next year, the Carnegie Corporation of New York established a library program providing support to cities and towns that were interested in building free public libraries. In 1912, Neva Jane Bostwick Douglas (1874-1973) spearheaded an effort to bring a Carnegie Library to Renton. She spent considerable time and effort assembling a citizens committee and working with it to prepare and submit an application requesting funding from the Carnegie Corporation to help build a library in Renton. In 1913, the Carnegie Corporation responded with a letter agreeing to provide a $10,000 grant. Renton residents were divided about where the library should be located and the grant was almost lost due to the arguments. Ignazio (1853-1915) and Jennie Sartori donated three lots on the edge of North Renton, but many community members objected to the location as too far from the town.

Nonetheless planning and construction of the new library on the donated lots began promptly. The Carnegie Library was designed by Harold H. Ginnold (1886-1959), an architect with C. Lewis Wilson & Company, with space for 8,000 volumes. A Seattle construction company built the Georgian red-brick Renton Carnegie Library for the budgeted $10,000. Located at 1201 Bronson Way, opposite the north end of Liberty Park, the library opened on March 11, 1914. Florence Guitteau (later Storey, 1885-1976) was the first person issued a library card.

The Renton City Council provided $1,000 for staff salaries and maintenance, but did not cover the cost of books. Businesses and individuals donated an estimated $800 or more to build the collection. Most of the initial books were provided by the Seattle and Tacoma public libraries and other sources from books they were discarding. Old and used books were accepted to supplement the skimpy collection. Additional funds and book donations came from Renton's coal-mining industry.

The first library board, appointed by Renton mayor Charles McCowan, included the Reverend O. F. Krieger, president; Lulu Dickinson, secretary; Grant Bates, treasurer; Mrs. Carl Tvete; and Mrs. James Nichols. Nellie Wilson was the first librarian to work in the new building. Later Winifred C. Daniels (1886-1972) served as librarian from 1927 to 1954.

Need for a New Library

As early as the 1930s, the city began to outgrow its library. Then with the opening of a new Boeing Company plant in 1941 amid the wartime boom during World War II, the city's population increased by a reported 257 percent between 1940 and 1950. The Carnegie Library's collection grew along with the population it served, with some 68,000 books in a building initially designed to hold 8,000.

In 1944, the newly formed King County Library System established the Renton Highlands Library to help serve the influx of wartime workers and their families. On January 1, 1947, the Renton Highlands Library became part of the city's Renton Public Library system along with the Carnegie Library. Renton now had a main library and a branch library. That same year, the city's library board discussed collaborating with KCLS to address the constant lack of funds to support the city libraries, a concern that continued throughout the 1950s.

The Greater Renton Chamber of Commerce worked with the League of Women Voters to have a bond issue presented to city voters that would fund a new public library to replace the aging and overcrowded Carnegie Library. However three proposed bond issues were defeated by voters concerned about costs and divided over where to locate a new library. Finally a $150,000 bond measure was approved by city voters in November 1964.

Crossing the River

According to Renton historian Elizabeth Stewart, a major reason that the bond issue finally succeeded was the unique location and design proposed for the library, which was to be built "across the Cedar River, resting on twelve giant columns and the riverbanks themselves" as part of a "vision [for] a civic complex on the Cedar River. This vision made all the difference. Renton residents were captivated by the prize-winning design for a new library that would straddle the river, near a new City Hall, senior center, community auditorium, and park grounds" (Stewart, "From Carnegie to the Cedar River," 5).

The river-spanning library was designed by Johnston-Campanella & Company and constructed by Alton V. Phillips and Company at a cost of $327,560. It was 20,000 square feet in size and opened with a book capacity of 100,000. As nearly as research can determine it was the first -- and in 2017 remains the only -- library "literally built over a river" in Washington or anywhere in the United States (Woodrell email). There are structures spanning rivers that incorporate buildings elsewhere in the world, such as the famous Italian bridges Ponte Vecchio in Florence and Ponte Rialto (Rialto Bridge) in Venice, but these centuries-old structures are primarily bridges on which buildings have been built, while the building across the Cedar River flowing through the heart of Renton was designed and built as a library.

The new library opened on April 17, 1966. Officially named the Renton Public Library it was also known as the Cedar River Library. While Renton gained a one-of-a-kind architectural distinction, it also lost some architectural history. Two years after the opening, in April 1968, the Renton Carnegie Library building was torn down. Efforts to save the old library were futile. The structure required repairs that were too extensive and the original design was unsuitable for the changing city.

In 1986 and 1987, the city undertook an extensive renovation of the Renton Library to provide more efficient facilities and services for the community. The work included additions to the building, landscaping, a parking lot, and an automated circulation system. On May 3, 1987, a rededication ceremony celebrated the renovation.

Approving Annexation, Rejecting Relocation

During the 1990s, technology became an increasing focus for the Renton Public Library staff. Meeting patron demand for new and ever-changing information technology services as the Internet Age arrived and evolved required creative solutions, particularly because the funds that the city could provide were limited. Proud of their independent library system, many Renton residents were cautious about annexing the city's two libraries -- Renton Public and Renton Highlands -- to the King County Library System. But budgetary constraints were gnawing away at the city's architectural marvel.

By 2008 Mayor Denis Law and city council members were actively considering the possibility of annexing the Renton libraries to KCLS. To annex or not to annex was the subject of considerable discussion. City officials and residents did not want to let go of their library's independence but, at the same time, the cost of maintenance and services was steadily increasing. The city hired consultants to develop a Library Master Plan Study, which laid out the benefits and potential drawbacks of annexation:

"If Renton chooses the option of joining the King County Library System, Renton residents would get modern library facilities, both established and developing service, and extensive resources from one of the wealthiest libraries in the country. However, joining the King County Library System would mean loss of local control, the possibility of only one library branch, loss of services tailored specifically for Renton, and probable higher costs per taxpayer" ("Renton Public Library Master Plan, 2008-2013").

On February 9, 2010, Renton voters approved moving forward with annexation. On March 1, 2010, the Renton Public and Renton Highlands libraries were officially annexed to the King County Library System. KCLS immediately went into action, increasing hours, updating the computer network, switching over the catalog database, replacing barcode labels on books, training staff in KCLS procedures, providing new library furnishings, and much more, while at the same time maintaining the traditions and culture of the Renton libraries.

Following annexation, city officials proposed relocating the Renton Library from its Cedar River location to a site in downtown Renton formerly occupied by the retailer Big 5 Sports just west of the Renton Piazza, a public park considered a downtown focal point and frequently used for community events. The relocation proposal was not popular: Many residents organized to stop the move and, in 2012, citizens submitted signatures for a ballot referendum on the issue. The city council put the measure on the August 7, 2012, ballot, allowing citizens to vote on whether to keep the library in its existing location over the Cedar River or move it to the Renton Piazza site. The Cedar River location won by an overwhelming margin, with 76 percent in favor and 24 percent opposed.

Renton Library in the Twenty-first Century

Like all libraries in the twenty-first century, the Renton Library has been expanding and reimagining its role as information and data increasingly become more accessible online. Providing access to printed and recorded media remains a critical role, but the library is no longer just providing physical access to such materials. It also increasingly provides a portal to the wealth of information available online and also offers a welcoming space that encourages exploration, creation, and collaboration between community members and beyond.

For five consecutive years, from 2012 through 2016, the Renton Library won a Governor's Smart Communities Award. The 2016 award from Governor Jay Inslee (b. 1951) was a "Judges Merit Award" that recognized "the partnership between the city of Renton and the King County Library System" as they "worked together to completely refurbish the library's interior and exterior, while maintaining the integrity of the river and surrounding area" (Beckley).

The renovation of the library over the Cedar River was a 15-month-long collaboration between KCLS, Renton officials and citizens, and the Miller-Hull Partnership, an architecture firm. The refurbished library was celebrated at an opening ceremony on August 22, 2015.

In April 2016, the Renton Library received the prestigious Library Building Award from the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the American Library Association (ALA) in recognition of the 2015 renovation work and "in part for its unique distinction of being built over the Cedar River, a beloved location for decades" ("Delivering on a Promise ...," 2).


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