Southwest Branch, The Seattle Public Library

  • By David Wilma
  • Posted 9/16/2002
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 3957
The Southwest Branch, The Seattle Public Library has served residents in southwest Seattle since 1961 in an award-winning building that was doubled in size under the 1998 "Libraries for All" bond issue.

World War II saw a housing boom in Seattle. New residents who got jobs at Boeing or in one of the Duwamish waterway shipyards found cheap real estate in West Seattle. The growth continued in the late 1940s and into the 1950s, and the southwest corner of the city filled with new homes. Residents expected paved streets, sewers, parks, and library services. The closest branch library was the West Seattle Branch, several miles to the north.

Community groups lobbied to get bookmobile services and their own library. On March 8, 1945, Fauntleroy Station opened in commercial space at 4505 Wildwood Place SW near the Fauntleroy ferry landing. The rent was $25 a month and the small facility was open Monday and Thursday afternoons for six hours. Patronage was strong enough that in 1959 an additional afternoon was added to the weekly schedule. The station quickly became a center of neighborhood activity and culture.  By 1957, the station was circulating an average of more than 350 books a day.

In 1956, Seattle voters approved a $5 million bond issue for a new central library to replace the 1905 Carnegie building and to build three new branches. Southwest Seattle was the first neighborhood to receive one of these branches because of the area's strong growth and the heavy use of the West Seattle Branch and Fauntleroy Station. The intersection of 35th Avenue SW and SW Henderson Street offered good proximity to public transportation and shopping, and room for parking. The new branch could serve a high school, a junior high school, and seven elementary schools. Some residents still wanted to keep Fauntleroy Station because of the hill between there and the new branch, the lack of public transportation, and the fact that the station had become such a fixture in the neighborhood.

A Simple Open Plan

West Seattle resident Robert Durham (1912-1998) of Durham Anderson Freed drew up plans for a 7,833-square-foot building that received several awards for its "simple open plan" and "good color, detail and handling of light to create a pleasant interior" (Landmark Nomination). Prof. Charles W. Smith from the University of Washington Art Department designed a 52-inch bronze sculpture of a mother reading to a child for the front façade (later moved to the main entry). Total cost of construction and landscaping was $131,449.15. In 1961, the Seattle Chapter of American Institute of Architects awarded Durham the Honor for Excellence in Design.

The branch was dedicated on July 14, 1961 and the new facility was an immediate hit, particularly after school. Books came from the old Fauntleroy Station and the Aloha Branch. But space was an immediate concern and librarians had to use the conference room for overflow storage from the children's section. Various community and youth groups used the conference room. At election time, it became a polling place.

The Southwest Branch quickly became a part of the community with collections for adults, young adults, and children. Books came from the Fauntleroy Station and the Aloha Branch. Thursday mornings in the summer, children gathered for a story hour. Students could join a reading club, receiving a certificate for reading the required number of books. A year later, 1,000 patrons a day were visiting the branch. By 1963, the branch was third in circulation of all the branches.

Changing Times

Beginning in 1964, librarians noticed a gradual decline in circulation, attributed to the growth in quality of school libraries. To help promote reading, the librarian wrote a weekly column for the West Seattle Herald.

The turmoil of the late 1960s was reflected in and around the branch. In 1968, librarians reported an increased interest books regarding interracial marriage, teen marriage, racial equality, and drugs. On three occasions that same year, vandals fired gunshots into the building damaging windows, doors, and walls and once nearly hitting the engineer, Charles Scull. A convenience store across the street was a frequent target for robberies (one suspect was killed), which may have influenced the declining patronage. A brief increase was noted in 1969, but patronage slid again the following year after the Burien library opened.

Changing Faces

The growth in West Seattle ended with the Boeing Bust of 1969-1973. Residents moved away and housing vacancies rose to 15 percent. Local school enrollments dropped by 40 percent compared to 10 years earlier. Hispanic immigrants began to fill the vacuum. The library started a campaign to stock Spanish-language titles. English-speaking librarians under the leadership of branch head Barbara Eling familiarized themselves with a whole new (to them) body of literature and new publishers. The staff struggled with shifting budgetary limits to hire and retain bilingual aides.

The award-winning design, which included the old madrona trees on the site, did not suit the trees and they died within a few years. The shade offered by the trees was missed and blinds had to be used until the replacement sweet gums grew to maturity.

Between February and October 1987, the branch was swamped with users while the landmark West Seattle Branch was being renovated. The city council appropriated funds to increase the branch hours.

Ties to the Community

In 1990, the branch began to participate in a new after-school program for latchkey children after school called HELP - Homework Enrichment Library Project. After a snack at the neighborhood community center, students went to the branch where they received help with their homework until 7:00 p.m.

In 1993, neighborhood residents wanted to volunteer to support their branch. Librarian Christy Tyson and two others organized Friends of the Southwest Branch Library. At the first meeting, 20 volunteers appeared. They helped staff clean and shelve books, file papers, and attend to other tasks to allow staff to spend time with library users. By 1996, there were 60 in the group and they solicited donations for books and a new computer.

A New Southwest Branch

In 1998, Seattle voters approved a $196.4 million "Libraries for All" bond issue to construct a new Central library, build new branches, and upgrade existing branches. The Southwest Branch received a  $6.25 million remodel and expansion.

Architects Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen designed a building almost twice the size of the original with provisions for computers and a meeting room, something lacking in the original design. Vancouver, B.C., artist Katherine Kerr created five bronze sculptures of hands holding objects of importance to the library's patrons. The hands lead up to the branch's front doors. Some of the most active library users modeled for the hands. Seattle artist Morgan Brig cast and engraved metal panels for the building. The building now featuring 15,000 square feet of space, 32 computers, and two stories, reopened on March 10, 2007.

Head Librarians

  • Katherine Porter, 1961-1966
  • Doris Rossbach, 1967-1971
  • Barbara Erling, 1972-1974
  • Judith Shires, 1975-1976
  • Emily Carter, 1976-1977
  • Regional Management, 1977-1990
  • Marilyn Ring-Nelson, 1990-1991
  • Christy Tyson, 1991-2007
  • Susan Bravenec, (interim appointment) 2007
  • Rekha Kuver, (interim appointment) 2007
  • Theresa Mayer, 2008-present

Sources: Bola Architecture and Planning, Landmark Nomination of the Southwest Library for the Seattle Public Library, spiral bound report, September 2000, History Ink Office, Seattle, Washington; "Southwest Library -- Misc. Papers," folder, Seattle Public Library Archives; "Southwest Library -- Annual Reports," Ibid. The following clippings are found in the Southwest Branch Scrapbook, Southwest Branch, Seattle Public Library: Louis Guzzo, "Eight Win Architectural Awards," The Seattle Times," December 8, 1961; "Citizen's Group To Take Bows At Library Dedication," Ibid. July 9, 1961; "New Library, After One Year, Serves 1,000 District Readers Daily," West Seattle Herald, ca. July 1962; HistoryLink.org the online encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Remodeled Southwest Branch of The Seattle Public Library reopens on March 10, 2007," (by David Wilma), http://www.HistoryLink.org (accessed June 7, 2007); "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; Karen Spiel, email to Paula Becker, February 14, 2009, in possession of Paula Becker, Seattle, Washington; Rekha Kuver email to Paula Becker, February 18, 2009, in possession of Paula Becker, Seattle, Washington..
Note: This essay was updated on December 30, 2007, on September 10, 2008, and again on February 21, 2009.

Related Topics:   Buildings | Education | The Seattle Public Library

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