Fremont Branch, The Seattle Public Library

  • By David Wilma
  • Posted 10/01/2002
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 3967
Seattle's first branch library was opened on February 2, 1903, in Fremont. The branch was an outgrowth of a privately funded free reading room upstairs in a drug store. The 1921 branch library building was a gift from Andrew Carnegie and is on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2004 the library was closed for a major renovation completed as part of "Libraries For All," a $196.4 million bond issue passed by Seattle voters in 1998. The renovated library reopened in April 2005.

The Fremont Free Reading Room

In 1894, farmer Erastus Witter took it upon himself to organize a library for Fremont, which had been annexed to Seattle in 1891. The main library was downtown in the Occidental Building, too far for Fremont residents to enjoy. Witter contacted 10 prominent citizens and convinced each of them to pledge $5 a year toward acquiring books and space. What books he acquired he kept at his residence at 722 Ewing Street (later N 34th Street).

It took until 1901 for Witter to open his Free Reading Room on the second floor of the Fremont Drug Co. at 3401 Fremont Avenue. Sidney S. Elder, who owned Fremont Drug, was also president of the Fremont Reading Room Association. The reading room was open every three days for checkout and return.

Enter the Branch

Sidney Elder became a member of the Seattle Public Library Board and through his efforts, the board committed to opening a branch in Fremont. On September 29, 1902, the first 200 volumes purchased by Seattle arrived to stock the shelves of the new  Fremont branch. The books included  both standard fiction and what the Seattle Post-Intelligencer termed "more solid reading." Erastus Witter became the librarian and an employee from downtown did the cataloging.

Within a few months, the library board rented some second-floor apartments at 3424½ Fremont Avenue on the southeast corner of Fremont Avenue and Blewett Street (later N 35th Street). One of the rooms became the librarian's office and the hallway was used as a reading room. The other rooms were equipped with shelves and tables. The branch officially opened on February 2, 1903, with 1,000 volumes. It was open three days a week and closed at 4:00 p.m. In 1905, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported, "This is, according to many of the residents, much too short a time, especially for the working classes, who would be glad to use the rooms if the hours were longer. There will be an effort to extend the hours to 9 o'clock in the evening" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer). Witter resigned his position in 1904 due to ill health.

A Real Building for a Real Branch

In the 1900s, Seattle received several grants from philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) for a new main library and for several branches. Fremont wanted a branch, but residents could not agree on a location for it and no branch was built. The Fremont librarian did a study of where borrowers lived and she fixed the center of her clientele as the corner of Fremont Avenue and Blewett Street, where the library already was.

In 1912, the branch moved to larger quarters in a ground-floor storefront across the street at 3425 Fremont Avenue. But residents still wanted a real branch, a branch with a building. Fremont was one of the busiest and best supported branches in the city with circulation increasing at the rate of 500 books each year. The Fremont Commercial Club wrote to the library board requesting that it build a library in Fremont.

Developing More Readers

The character of Fremont changed dramatically with the completion of the interurban rail line between Seattle and Everett through Fremont. The construction of the Lake Washington Ship Canal in the 1910s brought in more business activity and more residents who wanted library services. In 1916, the Businessmen's Club of Fremont launched a drive to collect money for a new branch. In 1917, Andrew Carnegie offered Seattle $35,000 for a Fremont branch if the community would provide the land, the books, and the staff.

By 1920 the community had raised $7,000 through solicitation and fundraisers. One fundraiser in the Masonic Temple, for example, featured a Chinese monologue, two female soloists, and a Hawaiian trio. The City of Seattle chipped in the balance of $3,000 to buy a lot on N 35th Street for $10,000.

Stucco and Red Tile

The library board became concerned that the Carnegie grant might no longer be enough for construction and asked for more. The foundation declined the request. To save money, the board went to the City Architect for a design instead of using an outside firm as had been done with the other branches.

Daniel R. Huntington (1871-1962), who had designed the Lake Union Steam Plant, the Wallingford police station, and the University Bridge piers, got the job. Huntington chose the mission style or mission-revival style, unusual for Seattle. He called the style Italian Farmhouse. It consisted of terra-cotta brick covered with stucco; a red tile roof; tile-trimmed, arched windows; and high-gabled, open-beamed ceilings.

The 2,708-square-foot main floor held the main reading room, offices, a work room, a staff room, and a women's rest room. The men's rest room was on a landing leading to a lower floor. The 1,068-square-foot lower floor comprised a story room, a periodical room, and another office. Total cost of construction was $36,939.

The new branch opened on July 27, 1921, and it quickly became a center of community activity. Children's story hours, summer reading clubs and adult education courses became regular features. The auditorium was ideal for classes in creative dramatics. During the 1920s, the character of the neighborhood around the building shifted from residential to commercial and the librarians saw a drop in circulation.

Books and Babies in Hard Times

During the Great Depression (1929-1939), patronage went back up, but services fell off. In 1932, the library board closed each branch one extra day a week, cut back hours, and reduced staff salaries. Unemployed and underemployed people filled the reading room to learn about new economic opportunities, particularly on days when neighboring branches were closed. The health department ran a baby clinic downstairs in the auditorium that continued into the 1940s. Notes at the Fremont Branch describe this program as "a howling success" (Scrapbook).

In 1938 the Lincoln Coordinating Council, the National Youth Authority, and the Works Progress Administration started a recreation center for children 12 to 15 years of age, which resulted immediately in a drop in gang activity in the area. That program folded after a year for want of leadership.

The War and After the War

During World War II, librarians saw an increased interest in books on world problems and foreign places, and in technical works. The American Red Cross offered first aid classes in the auditorium. After the war, borrowers looked for works about house planning, marriage, and child studies.

In 1945, the Fremont Branch auditorium became home to the library system's Blind Department with works in Braille and books recorded on phonograph records. When the Blind Department moved to the Henry Branch on Capitol Hill in 1954, the auditorium was used for storage for the blind materials. In 1973, it returned to its original use for public events.

The Fremont District saw a decline in economic activity during the 1950s and 1960s and a corresponding drop in circulation. A housing boom in the 1960s resulted in more families moving back into the area. Artists also found the neighborhood inviting. Fremont became a center for creativity that was reflected in the library in a concentration of works on art.

In 1984, Seattle voters approved the 1-2-3 bond issue to fund renovation of the Carnegie branch libraries. Fremont closed for eight months beginning in December 1987 for its remodel. The building made it to the National Register of Historic Places, which will preserve its design characteristics.

By the late 1990s, commercial development in Fremont and the increase in rents pushed many artists out of the area, causing the demand for art books to drop. Those items were dispersed to other branches.

The 1998 "Libraries For All" bond issue provided $196.4 million for a new central library and new or upgraded branches. The Fremont renovation was completed in April 2005, and includes converting a storage area to public use and updating the 27,000-book collection.

Branch Librarians

  • Imo Taylor, 1903
  • Doris Hopkins, 1904-1905
  • Emma K. McCullough, 1905-1921
  • Florence H. Severs, 1921-1923
  • Anna Laura Bowles, 1923-1924
  • Doris Hopkins, 1924-1930
  • Emily Keith, 1931-1946
  • F. Merrin, 1947-1949
  • Florence Malone, 1949-1962
  • Faith Salisbury, 1963-1970
  • Mary Soule, 1971
  • Brenda Tom, 1972-1977
  • Regional Management, 1977-1990
  • Alice Dennis, (dates not available)
  • Joan Johnson, 2006
  • Steve DelVecchio, 2007-2008
  • Hannah Parker (interim manager), 2008-present

Sources: "Open Branch Library," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 3, 1903, p. 14; "Public Library Branch," Ibid., February 2, 1903, p. 6; "Receives 200 Volumes," Ibid., September 30, 1902, p. 6; "Changes in Branch Library at Fremont," Ibid., January 3, 1905, p. 8; "Fremont Wants Library Building," Ibid., December 22, 1912, Sec. 2, p. 4; "Fremont Works for Carnegie Library," Ibid., January 11, 1919, p. 4; "2 Libraries, Pool and Center To Be Closed for Renovation," The Seattle Times, December 7, 1987, p. B-4; "Branch Library," typed transcription of a Seattle Times article, "Fremont Library -- Landmark Designation Papers," folder, Seattle Public Library Archives; "Minutes of the Seattle Public Library Board Meetings," Vol. 3, p. 341, 394, bound volume, Ibid.; "Fremont Library -- History," folder, Ibid.; "Fremont Branch," folder, Ibid.; "General History," folder, Ibid.; "Seattle Public Library -- Chronology," typescript, Fremont Branch Library scrapbook; Seattle Public Library Annual Reports 1898-1920 (bound together), Northwest History Collection, The Seattle Public Library; Seattle Public Library Directory of Staff, 1967-1970 (bound toether, Northwest History 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.
Note: This essay was updated and corrected on May 29, 2005, on September 10, 2008, and once again on May 9, 2009.

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