Fairwood Library, King County Library System

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 12/09/2016
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20229
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The Fairwood Library, in the unincorporated neighborhood of Fairwood, just east of Renton, is one of the busiest libraries in the King County Library System (KCLS). It began in 1964, when the Cascade-Spring Glen Community Club asked KCLS if it would start a library in the club building. KCLS took out a lease on one room of the building, stocked it with books, and called it the Vista Library. It proved immediately popular in this fast-growing suburban area. In 1969, KCLS purchased the building, allowing the Vista Library to take over the entire 1,440-square-foot space. In 1980, voters approved a library levy lid lift, which provided funds for a new $1.5 million, 15,000-square-foot Fairwood Library on a new site about a mile east of the Vista Library. The Fairwood Library opened on January 21, 1986. In 1987 it ranked as the busiest library in KCLS. It was remodeled in 2006. Beginning in 2013, it underwent an $8 million expansion to 20,000 square feet, along with a comprehensive renovation. The expanded Fairwood Library reopened on December 6, 2014, and it remains the civic and cultural center of Fairwood.

Coal and Lakes

The South King County area known as Fairwood has its roots in coal. Fairwood is perched just above the Cedar River Valley, one of the long-standing routes between Puget Sound and the Cascades for Native Americans and later also for non-Indian settlers. Yet the area remained relatively uninhabited due to its rugged, heavily wooded terrain, until coal was discovered there in the 1870s. By the late 1880s, a Fairwood-area coal boom was underway, with several coal mines operating within a few miles of today's Fairwood Library, including the Lake Youngs Coal Mine at today's Petrovitsky Park and the Fire King Mine at today's Fairwood Greens subdivision. The town of Cedar Mountain, about four miles east of today's library, was centered around mines and a sawmill.

The coal mines brought in roads, railroads, and miners, many of whom were housed in cedar shacks near the mines. The first school in what would become the Fairwood Library's service area opened in 1885. As the coal industry went into a slow decline in the twentieth century, some miners chose to stay and become loggers, and others bought land, cleared it, and started farms. One of the earliest and largest farms in the area was the Elliott Dairy Farm, started by Robert James Elliott in 1909. The farm, with its 1911 Craftsman-style home and other farm buildings, operated as a dairy farm into the 1970s and later was designated a historical landmark by the King County Landmarks and Heritage Commission. Many other dairy farms would also spring up in the early part of the twentieth century, including the Aqua Barn Ranch and the Madsen Farm.

The area is dotted with lakes, including Shadow Lake, Lake Desire, and Spring Lake (formerly known as Otter Lake). Resorts were built on some of their shores, catering to Seattle-area fishermen and recreationists. One of the biggest lakes was known as Swan Lake, and it underwent a crucial transformation in beginning 1917, when the Seattle Water Department converted it into a storage reservoir fed by Cedar River water. In 1921, two dams were built at the lake, increasing its size. The water department built two pipelines from the river to the lake, which today "run underground just south of the Fairwood Library parking lot and just north behind the library" ("History"). In 1923, Swan Lake's name was changed to Lake Youngs, after city water superintendent L. B. Youngs (1860-1923), and today it remains off limits to the public because it supplies drinking water to Seattle and many other King County communities.

The area remained mostly rural through the World War II era. At least one coal mine continued to operate until 1950, yet the coal industry was finally displaced by cheap fuel oil and cheap hydroelectric power. Then in the 1950s the Fairwood area began to experience a different kind of boom -- a suburban housing boom. The entire Puget Sound area had been mushrooming since the 1940s, spurred largely by the airplane industry. Many people were moving to the nearby cities of Renton, where the Boeing Company began building airplanes during the war, and Kent, where Boeing would build rockets and other aerospace products beginning in the 1960s. By the late 1950s the suburban housing boom was stretching eastward from those two cities, across what was known as the Benson Road (roughly 108th Avenue SE) and into the Fairwood area. One of the first large subdivisions was called Cascade Vista, developed beginning in 1957. It was in the Cascade-Spring Glen area, about a mile west of the current Fairwood Library. The Cascade Shopping Center was built in that area in 1959. The population was booming.

The Vista Library

In 1964, a group of residents concluded that the area had one glaring lack: a library. The Cascade-Spring Glen Community Club resolved to take on this need. Club members asked KCLS if the System would start a library in the club-owned building at 11635 S.E. 170th Place. KCLS agreed, and obtained a grant from the Washington State Library to help fund the facility. KCLS signed a lease for part of the club building in November 1964, stocked it with books from the KCLS collection, and staffed it. The new library was called the Vista Library, after the Cascade Vista area where it was located (and in news stories it was occasionally called the Cascade Vista Library).

It was an immediate success. A Seattle Times story in November 1965 noted that the Vista Library already had one of the highest book-circulation totals in the county library system. In fact, it was already evident that the Vista Library needed more space than one room in the building of its sponsor, the Cascade-Spring Glen Community Club. The newly formed Vista Library Group, a group of local library supporters, held a Christmas bazaar fundraiser in 1965 to "improve the library building and grounds and begin a fund for a permanent building" ("Bazaar to Be Benefit ...").

By 1967, the club and the Vista Library Group had raised $10,000 for remodeling. KCLS purchased the entire club building that year. By February 1969 KCLS began an extensive remodeling project in which the whole 1,440-square-foot building was converted to library use. The Vista Library was closed for the remodel that spring and reopened on May 19, 1969. The local Carriage Lane Garden Club volunteered for the task of designing and installing the landscaping -- including one area devoted to a Japanese tea-garden effect.

Fairwood's population continued to boom. The name Fairwood first came into prominence with the development of the Fairwood Golf and Country Club and its related housing developments in the mid 1960s. A 1966 real-estate ad for the Fairwood developments began with the headline, "There's more family fun per acre in Fairwood" (The Seattle Times, December 4, 1966). The first true "Fairwood" residents were a Boeing engineer and his family who moved into the first house in the development in February 1967. The Fairwood Greens housing development, built atop several old abandoned coal mining shafts, was followed by subdivisions at Fairwood Crest, Fairwood West, and many other subdivisions in the 1970s. It was becoming clear that a 1,440-square-foot library was no longer sufficient for a population that was almost 10 times bigger than it had been only a decade before.

Lifting the Levy Lid

In 1980 KCLS proposed a $6 million levy lid lift to fund several library projects, including a new $1.5 million Fairwood Library to replace the Vista Library. Fairwood residents were perhaps the county's most enthusiastic proponents of this bond measure, as they "helped distribute 10,000 copies of a flyer" urging a yes vote ("Fairwood Library 2011 Community Study," 2). On March 18, 1980, voters approved the measure with a 67 percent yes vote. KCLS director Herbert Mutschler (1919-2001) gave credit to the people in Fairwood for pushing the bond issue over the top, telling a reporter, "The people in Fairwood who campaigned for the library really knocked themselves out. I think they only missed six homes in their door-to-door campaign" (Rader).

Mutschler noted that Fairwood's population had grown "from about 5,000 to 65,000 in 14 years" (Rader). He also said that the land for the new library had been purchased 10 years earlier with money from a 1966 bond issue. The location was at 17009 140th Avenue SE, across from the entrance to the Fairwood Golf and Country Club, and about a mile east of the Vista Library.

Planning began immediately. An article in The Seattle Times noted that the new $1.5 million Fairwood Library "will be 10 times the size of the present Vista Library" ("Renton's New Library ..."). With a total of 15,000 square feet, it would include a meeting room with capacity for 90 people and would house 90,000 books and other materials. It was designed by the Mithun/Bowman & Emerick Group. Groundbreaking ceremonies took place in October 6, 1984. Construction continued for more than a year.

Fairwood's Civic and Cultural Center

On January 21, 1986, the new Fairwood Library welcomed patrons for the first time. A daylong open-house celebration followed on February 15, 1986. The event featured storytellers Tom Galt and Gene Friese, the Festival Brass Ensemble, musician Tim Noah, and poet Susan Landgraf. The building, with its bright, accessible open spaces and distinctive lines, won a 1987 American Institute of Architects/American Library Association Award of Excellence for its design. The building was also enhanced by two artworks, Sentinel, an oil painting of Mount Rainier by Byron Birdsall, and On a Sunny Morning the Kernal Rides Out, an oil painting by Gaylen Hansen. In 1987, the new Fairwood Library was ranked as the busiest of all 36 libraries then in the King County Library System. "The people of Fairwood never seem to tire of using the facility," said Mutschler in 1989 (Johnson). In a community lacking a true downtown, the Fairwood Library clearly served as the community's civic and cultural center.

In 1989, the City of Renton explored the possibility of annexing the North Soos Creek area, which included the Fairwood Library. This raised the possibility that the Fairwood Library would be absorbed into the Renton city library system -- an idea that did not sit well with some local residents. As part of KCLS, the Fairwood Library had access to 1.5 million books, vastly more than the Renton Public Library's collection. One Fairwood resident said at a public meeting, "The library is probably the pivotal issue. If it is not resolved to the best interests of the people in this area, I would not give it [annexation] much chance of happening" (Johnson). The Seattle Times reported that residents "rallied around" the Fairwood Library, and in the end, the North Soos Creek annexation was dropped.

In 1996, KCLS and the Renton Public Library entered into a reciprocal agreement, which allowed Renton residents access to KCLS libraries and vice versa. Since Fairwood Library was close to the Renton city limits, it meant that the Fairwood Library was now serving more Renton residents, especially on Sundays when the Renton libraries were closed. This boosted the already high usage of the Fairwood Library. A KCLS study reported in 2003 that Fairwood "continues to be one of the busiest libraries in the King County system" and that the area's population was still growing, adding that the Fairwood Library is one of the few free public buildings in Fairwood and "continues to be the heart of the community" ("Fairwood Community Study July 2003").

In 2005 some Fairwood residents began a drive to incorporate as the City of Fairwood. Incorporation might have had a significant impact on the future of the Fairwood Library, because a new city government would need to make a decision about whether the city should take over the library or enter into an agreement to keep it with KCLS. In the end, no such decision was required, because the incorporation vote failed by a few hundred votes. Meanwhile, a major remodeling project closed the Fairwood Library for six weeks in late 2006. When it reopened, the Fairwood Library had a larger children's area, redesigned circulation and reference desks, and the new Food for Thought Cafe.

In 2009 citizens launched a second incorporation drive to create the City of Fairwood. The Fairwood Library again became part of the debate when incorporation proponents warned that if incorporation failed, Renton might then annex Fairwood and make the Fairwood Library part of the Renton Public Library, resulting in poor service compared to the service provided by KCLS. In fact, proponents warned that if Fairwood was annexed into Renton, "we may have to help Renton pay to upgrade its libraries!" ("Fairwood Incorporation ..."). Nevertheless, for a second time the incorporation vote failed.

In 2010, another proposal went before voters to annex the Fairwood area into the city of Renton. However, by this time the Fairwood Library was no longer a key issue in the debate over whether to become part of Renton. Earlier that year, Renton voters had narrowly approved annexing the Renton Library into KCLS, which shifted responsibility for libraries in Renton from the city to KCLS and meant that the Fairwood Library would remain part of KCLS even if the Fairwood area were to become part of Renton. It turned out to be a moot point. On November 2, 2010, voters again rejected annexing the area into the city of Renton, with only 42 percent in favor.

Expansion and Renovation

A 2011 Fairwood Community Study showed that the population of the Fairwood Library's service area had grown by more than 14 percent from 2000 to 2010. In 2010, the Fairwood Library had more than 290,000 visitors. With the population and library use still growing, in 2011 KCLS embarked on an ambitious Fairwood Library expansion and renovation plan, using $8 million from the $172 million capital bond issue approved by the county's voters in 2004. The Fairwood Library plan called for expanding the building from 15,000 square feet to 20,000 square feet, adding more community meeting space, more quiet space, and more space for teens and children. It also included more computers and materials, new heating systems, and new material-handling systems. It called for complete demolition of the interior and half of the exterior. When construction began in September 2013, the library moved to a temporary, storefront location for more than a year.

On December 6, 2014, an estimated 500 residents celebrated the grand reopening of the expanded Fairwood Library with a ribbon-cutting ceremony. What they saw as they entered the library was an even more "open and airy feeling, offering natural light from its high, southwest facing windows, as well as opening up a view of its woodsy surroundings" ("Delivering on a Promise").

Since its founding in 1964, the library had always served as the cultural heart of this suburban community. Now, with 20,000 square feet of glass-enclosed space, it was filling that role more brightly than ever. As of 2015, it was the seventh-busiest library of the 49 libraries of the King County Library System.


"Fairwood Library 2011 Community Study," King County Library System (KCLS) website accessed December 1, 2016 (https://w3.kcls.org/community_studies/Fairwood%20Library%20Community%20Study.pdf); "Fairwood Community Study July 2003," KCLS website accessed December 1, 2016 (https://w3.kcls.org/community_studies/Fairwood%20Community%20Study.pdf); "Delivering on a Promise to Voters: KCLS Capital Improvement Plan 11-Year Report, September 2015," KCLS website accessed November 1, 2016 (https://w3.kcls.org/pdf/11_year_report.pdf); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Cedar River Tour" (by Alan Stein) and "Boeing and Washington's Aerospace Industry, 1934-2015" (by Jim Kershner), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed November 29, 2016); "History," a history of the Fairwood area, prepared by the Fairwood Library, 1995, Vertical Files, Fairwood Library, Renton, Washington; "Fairwood Library Reopens," Fairwood Community News, December 8, 2014 (http://www.fairwoodcommunitynews.com/2014/StoryArchive_2014.html); "Fairwood Incorporation Position Statements, Week Four: Services -- Libraries and Parks," Fairwood Community News, October 12, 2009 (http://www.fairwoodcommunitynews.com/2009/10.09/10.12.09Week4_ParksLibraries.html); "North Soos Creek Only Sounds Rural -- Annexation Move Gains Momentum," The Seattle Times, September 14, 1990, p. B-3; "Renton's New Library to House More Books, Offer More Services," Ibid., June 6, 1984, p. G-2; P. J. Rader, "County Library System Planning Expansion," Ibid., March 20, 1980, p. E-1; "There's more family fun per acre in Fairwood" (advertisement), Ibid., December 4, 1966, p. 46; "Bazaar to Be Benefit for Library Fund," Ibid., November 28, 1965, p. 48; Kathy Bunnell Johnson, "Fairwood's Future May Hinge on Library," Valley Daily News, March 9, 1989; "City of Fairwood Incorporation Study," Washington State Boundary Review Board, March 9, 2009, available at King County website accessed November 30, 2016 (http://your.kingcounty.gov/annexations/hearings/2009/FairwoodReportAndModel090129.pdf).

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