Magnolia Branch, The Seattle Public Library

  • By David Wilma
  • Posted 7/07/2002
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 3879
Beginning in 1943 as the fruit of neighborhood activism, the Magnolia Branch, The Seattle Public Library, has become an architectural landmark and a showcase for public art as well as a cultural and educational resource. Community-funded artworks reflect Magnolia residents' commitment to the library. Among the branches in Seattle, Magnolia is noted for its collection of opera material.

Bookmobile No Deal

When Magnolia evolved from a rural to a suburban community in the 1920s, residents formed the Magnolia Community Council to insure that City Hall did not ignore their interests and their needs. The closest branch libraries were in Ballard and on Queen Anne Hill, but there was no direct public transportation to either of these places.

In 1932, the council's library committee approached the library board to petition for service to the neighborhood. The board referred residents to the Bookmobile. Shortly thereafter, the Bookmobile was cut out of the library budget because of the Great Depression. The committee started a library fund and placed cans at cash registers to collect spare change.

Beer to Books

The Bookmobile returned in 1937, but readers wanted more. It took World War II to get action. Gasoline rationing made automobile trips to Ballard and Queen Anne to check out and return books almost unpatriotic. In January 1943, the library board agreed to provide the services of a librarian, part time, and some books, if Magnolia came up with the space. The library fund had grown to $1,500. The Magnolia Community Club chipped in another $300.

The library committee found an abandoned tavern at 3200-3202 W McGraw Street in what was beginning to be called Magnolia Village. Rent was $25 a month. Volunteers hauled away the garbage and knocked out the wall to an adjacent real estate office. With paint, tables, chairs, and some art on loan from the Seattle Art Museum, Magnolia Bluff Station took form. Three librarians, each working one day a week, supervised a collection of 3,200 books shipped out from downtown. Doors opened on April 1, 1943.

The station was an immediate hit. The first Saturday children's story hour drew an audience of 100. The little library hosted 20 more story hours over the next nine months. One librarian reported, "the atmosphere is different from any other branch. The whole community has a pioneer spirit, like an old country store where everyone gathers to meet their friends" ("Our Proud Library"). Patrons left returned books at the service station across the street, or the dry cleaners or bakery next door. Businesses collected phone messages for the librarians.

In January 1945, the library board took over the lease and made plans for proper space. On June 14, 1946, Magnolia Bluff Station moved to newly constructed space at 3414-3416 W McGraw Street under the management of branch librarian Helen Spoon. Patronage grew steadily to almost 4,000 borrowers who enjoyed more than 5,700 titles. The opening of a movie theater nearby in 1949 did not slow traffic.

But the advent of television did impact reading habits. In 1950, attendance at the Saturday children's story hour waned and the program was cancelled the following year. Librarians began to notice an increased interest in science fiction titles and in travel information. By the late 1950s, readers were asking for books on space exploration, missiles, and satellites. After 10 years in operation, Magnolia Station was overcrowded.

In 1956, Seattle voters approved a $5 million bond issue for a new central library and for three new branches, including Magnolia. But readers could not wait for more space for books. In 1959, the library leased a former Safeway market at 34th Avenue W and W McGraw Street. Volunteers moved the entire branch, books, furniture, and files, into a building with more light and three times the room. The impermanence of the lease arrangement nagged the community for four years until construction on a real branch began.

A Tree Library, with Art

With funds left over from the construction of the new downtown library, the library board purchased two lots from the Archdiocese of Seattle on 34th Avenue W at W Armour Street, just outside the Magnolia Village business district. Paul Hayden Kirk (1912-1995) of Kirk, Wallace, McKinley and Associates studied the location and developed a design that incorporated an old madrona tree that grew there. The new branch with open beams and shake siding greeted its first readers on July 1, 1964, and was formally dedicated by Mayor J. D. "Dorm" Braman (1901-1980) on July 17. A 6-year-old borrower was reported to question the designation as a "branch" library when it was clearly a "tree" library (Branch News).

The American Library Association granted its Award of Excellence to the structure. In 1966, the building was pictured in Architectural Record for "the modesty of its architectural solution, the unaffected residential scale appropriate to the area it serves, and the delightful use it makes of its wooded hill site" (Architectural Record in Landmark Nomination). University of Washington architecture students were assigned to study the building and to report on its design.

Continuing its tradition of supporting the neighborhood library, the Magnolia Community Club began a library art fund in 1963 to commission pieces for the new library. The first commissions went to University of Washington Art Professor Glen E. Alps for a metal wall sculpture, and to Ebba Rapp McLauchlan for the sculptures Doves on Driftwood and Girl Holding Doves. Other works followed.

Over the years, the Magnolia branches had some bad luck with weather, vandals, and burglars. In 1954, the station on W McGraw Street was flooded three times, once as a prank, once by frozen pipes, and once by heavy rains. The new library suffered vandalism and thefts in the 1960s and early 1970s and burglars made off with the McLaughlan sculptures. The Alps piece disappeared in 1992. (All the artworks were either replaced or recovered.)

Librarian Elizabeth Hansmann (1910-1999) took over at Magnolia station in 1952. She managed things at the branch through the floods and shifts in reader interest in the 1950s, through the move to the old Safeway store in 1959, and into occupation of Paul Kirk's building in 1964. She retired in 1974.

A Landmark Building

Public libraries are among the most heavily used buildings, and by 1986 it was clear that the Magnolia branch required renovation. In 1998, Seattle voters approved $196.4 million in bonds to build a new central library, to replace or renovate all 22 branch libraries, and to build three new branches. In 2001, the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board declared the Magnolia Branch a landmark building, and the library and the community laid plans to upgrade the existing structure while preserving its original design.

The renovation included roof replacement, upgrading the mechanical systems, adding energy-efficient windows, and bringing electrical, communications, and computer systems up to date. An addition of nearly 1,500 square feet, sited in a grove-like setting on the west side of the existing facility, was designed by SHKS (Snyder Hartung Kane Strauss) Architects and built by Graham Contracting Ltd. The remains of a wind-damaged walnut tree were fashioned into a custom table and bench by Meyer Wells, a Magnolia furniture shop, and the library's original furniture, designed by master craftsman George Nakashima, was restored and refinished.

"Catch + Release," a pair of related  sculptures designed specifically for the site by Bainbridge Island artist Kristin Tollefson, were installed, one suspended from the ceiling near a window on the south of the building and the other in the garden just outside. The original landscaping, designed by Richard Haag in 1964, was restored, and madrona trees that had been lost in the late 1960s were replaced by strawberry trees (Arbutus marina).

The branch reopened on July 12, 2008, after its $4.4 million expansion and renovation. The 44-year-old structure had grown in size by more than 20 percent, to 7,799 square feet, providing a new meeting room and a small study room. Also available to patrons are more computers (19 instead of 11) and more books and other materials (about 37,000 items). In 2009, Historic Seattle awarded the library project's team the 2009 Stewardship of Public Buildings award for "creating a model preservation project that incorporated both the restoration of a mid-century resource and the construction of a sensitive new addition that will allow the building to function as a library for years to come" ("Stewardship of Public Buildings Award").  In 2011, the expansion and renovation received further recognition with an honor award for design from the Washington Council of the AIA 

The Magnolia Branch, located at 2801 34th Avenue W, was the last of 27 projects completed under Seattle’s “Libraries for All” project. In all, 14 branches were renovated, nine buildings were replaced, and four new branches were built in the decade after the 1998 voter-approved bond issue.

Branch Librarians

  • Helen Spoon, 1946-1948
  • Margaret S. Porter, 1948-1951
  • Elizabeth Hansmann, 1952-1974
  • Judith Shires, 1974
  • Margaret Moyer, 1975-1977
  • Regional Management, 1977-1990
  • Lynn Daniel, (dates unavailable)
  • Emerich Hlava, (dates unavailable)
  • Bob Hageman, 2007-present

Sources: "Landmark Nomination of the Magnolia Library for The Seattle Public Library," BOLA Architecture + Planning, 320 Terry Avenue N, Seattle, WA 98109, November 2000, 7-9; "Our Proud Library," draft manuscript on foolscap, undated (ca. 1974), Archives of Magnolia Branch, Seattle Public Library, 2801 34th Avenue W, Seattle, WA 98199; Branch News, Seattle Public Library Newsletter, September 1964, p. 9; "Opera Collections, Auto Manuals, Genealogy: a Variety of Resources," The Seattle Times, September 29, 1998, Northwest Life; "Thieves Snatch $1500 Sculpture from library," The Seattle Times, April 14, 1992, p. B-5; Seattle Public Library Directory of Staff, 1967-1970 (bound together), Seattle Room Collection, The Seattle Public Library; Seattle Public Library uncataloged archival materials, Box 4, "Personnel Staff Day," folders "Staff Directory 1950," and "Staff Directory 1956," and "Staff Directory 1960-1969," and unmarked folder containing staff directories 1970-1977, Seattle, Washington; Library Board of Seattle, Minutes of Proceedings, Vols. 5 (1934-1944), 6 (1945-1951), 7(1952-1957), 8 (1958-1961), 9 (1962-1966), 10 (1967-1970), 11 (1971-1973), 12 (1974-1976), 13 ( 1977-1978), Seattle Room, Central Branch, Seattle Public Library, Seattle; "About the Magnolia Branch," Seattle Public Library website accessed December 29, 2009 (http://www.spl.org/default.asppageID=branch_open_about&branchID=17); "Magnolia Library Addition and Renovation," AIA webite accessed March 28, 2012 (http://2011honorawards.aiaseattle.org/node/500); "Magnolia Branch Library Renovation and Expansion Stewardship of Public Buildings Award," Historic Seattle website accessed March 28, 2012 (http://www.historicseattle.org/advocacy/award-ml.aspx).
Note: This essay was updated on September 10, 2008, expanded on May 10, 2009, expanded again on December 29, 2009, and amended on March 28, 2012, to include mention of awards and recognition received by the project team.

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You