Bellevue Library, King County Library System

  • By Alan J. Stein
  • Posted 12/14/2016
  • Essay 20243
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The first Bellevue Library, located in a small room at the back of a cafe, opened in 1925 under the supervision of the Bellevue Women's Club. The library moved around to various locations over the years before settling in the Bellevue Clubhouse in 1935. In 1944, the library became the fifth library to join the King County Library System (KCLS). After Bellevue incorporated in 1953, the city took on responsibility for the library and continued contracting with KCLS to operate it. Two more moves followed before the first building constructed specifically for the library opened in 1967. The Bellevue Library annexed to KCLS in 1985. Soon thereafter planning began for a new library building, which opened in 1993 as the largest library in the King County Library System.

Humble Beginnings

The area that later became the city of Bellevue was homesteaded in the 1860s, and by 1900 more than 400 people lived in the community. Many residents were berry farmers, although the area was also a rural retreat for wealthy Seattle families. The town was platted in 1904 and soon attracted other businesses, including a lumber mill along the Mercer Slough.

By 1920, more than 1,500 people called Bellevue home, and the town enjoyed many amenities found in a small rural community. In 1922, the Bellevue Women's Club formed to improve social and civic relations among the residents. Club members started out by arranging dances for young people, but their first big project was the creation of a town library.

In 1925, the club received a gift of 300 discarded books from the Seattle Public Library, along with a carton of books from the Washington State Library in Olympia and a few donated books from Bellevue residents. On November 12, 1925 -- in celebration of National Book Week -- 49 members of the women's club celebrated the opening of the Bellevue Library inside a long and narrow room at the back of Parrish's Cafe, located at the corner of Main Street and 100th Avenue NE. The bookshelves were made out of orange crates.

Two years later the library moved to less cramped corners after local businessman John Larson donated a 14-by-24-foot building three blocks east on Main Street. In 1931, it moved again, into the old Main Street School, after classes were transferred from the old school to the newly built Union S High School. Four years later in 1935, it moved once more, into the Bellevue Clubhouse, a block north of Main and 100th, which had been recently remodeled using funds from the federal Works Projects Administration (WPA).

The City Grows

The library settled into its new home, where it would remain for more than two decades. The cozy little clubhouse building was heated by a woodstove and chintz curtains hung in the windows. Marguerite Groves (1889-1967) -- a charter member of the Bellevue Women's Club -- was the librarian, and her husband Charles (1881-1971) was the library's part-time janitor. At the end of the day they'd walk home together, along with their pet cat.

In the 1940s, Bellevue's population began to grow rapidly. The new Lake Washington Floating Bridge made it much easier to commute by auto from the lake's Eastside to Seattle, and the small rural community began its transformation into a bustling suburb. Wartime industries, such as the Lake Washington Shipyard in nearby Houghton (now part of Kirkland), also attracted new residents to town. The library struggled to keep up with the growing number of readers.

In 1943, the Bellevue Library applied to become part of the King County Library System, which had been created little more than a year earlier as the King County Rural Library District. Bellevue became the fifth KCLS library on February 5, 1944. KCLS took over responsibility for the library's collections and operations, and Marguerite Groves was retained as the library's first salaried librarian.

The Bellevue Women's Club continued its sponsorship of the library, and helped to underwrite the costs of heating, lighting, and building maintenance. By the 1950s, these costs had risen to between $25 and $35 a month and the club had to ask other organizations to help pay the bills. Fortunately, the club's obligation came to an end after Bellevue incorporated in 1953.

The new city government took over responsibility for the library building and thanked the women for their 28 years of service. The library was allocated $40 a month in the first city budget, and the city council appointed a five-member Bellevue Library Board, with Roy Hawkinson (1889-1975) as its first president. The city continued to contract with KCLS for books and staff.

Still Moving Around

It wasn't long before city officials realized that the library had outgrown its building, and they began looking for other options. The city manager briefly floated the idea of having Bellevue run its own municipal library, instead of contracting with KCLS, but "leading state and county librarians" warned that this would be a "costly mistake" ("Bellevue Urged ..."). State librarian Maryan Reynolds met with the Bellevue Library Board and, highlighting the cooperation between KCLS and the Seattle Public Library, convinced board members that "People in the Seattle-King County area are getting the best library service in the state" ("Bellevue Urged ...").

Fully committed to staying with KCLS, board members began the work of finding a new home for the library. Eventually they chose to rent the basement of the old Washington State Bank Building on Main Street, and while it offered a much larger space, the basement was nowhere near as elegant as the old clubhouse. The library opened there in 1957 after groups like the Bellevue Kiwanis and Lions clubs helped move all the books and the Overlake Lodge of B'nai B'rith and the Bellevue Jaycees donated new metal shelving.

Soon after the move, Bellevue Friends of the Library was organized and began to advocate for a building more befitting the city's library. The group's long-term goal was the construction of a new building, but in the interim it helped city officials win voter approval of a $90,000 bond issue in September 1958 to purchase and refurbish the former Sacred Heart Church at 10812 Main Street. This became Bellevue's first city-owned library building.

Throughout 1960, the firm of Mithun, Ridenour, and Cochran remodeled the church, and the new 5,000-square-foot library opened in January 1961 with about 20,000 books in its collection. Meanwhile the Friends continued to advocate for a modern dedicated library building, and in 1964 voters approved a $250,000 library bond issue for the design and construction of a new library. The city later secured matching funds from the Federal Library Services Construction Act.

A Dedicated Building

Groundbreaking ceremonies for the new library were held in April 1965. Located next to Bellevue City Hall at 11501 Main Street, the 18,500-square foot building was designed by Ridenour and Cochran, Architects, and could house 65,000 volumes. Outdoor patio gardens were located at each corner of the one-story structure, which was engineered for a second-story addition, if needed.

The building opened on May 17, 1967. A year and a half later, Viennese artist Sepp Mayrhuber (1904-1989) donated a large mosaic mural to the library in honor of Marguerite Groves -- Bellevue's first librarian and Mayrhuber's mother-in-law -- who had recently died. Designed using the stucco-lustro process, the seven-by-10-foot mural was the first of its kind in the western hemisphere.

As large as the new library was, it struggled to keep up with Bellevue's growing population. By 1975, the Bellevue Library had the second-highest circulation in the state. KCLS also had a library in nearby Lake Hills, which opened in a new building in 1968, but after the City of Bellevue annexed the Lake Hills area in 1969, making the Bellevue Library Board responsible for overseeing two libraries. By the 1980s both buildings were running short on space as the city experienced the start of another growth spurt. Microsoft moved its headquarters to Bellevue (later to nearby Redmond) and other high-tech firms followed suit. Many banks also moved their corporate headquarters to the city, transforming it into one of the richest in the state.

Annexation to KCLS and a Large New Building

In 1985, Bellevue voters were asked to approve an initiative to annex the two Bellevue libraries to KCLS, which they did with 83 percent in favor. Annexation turned full responsibility for operating the library, and the portion of Bellevue residents' tax revenue devoted to library operations, over to KCLS. Not only did this give Bellevue residents direct access to a larger collection of library materials, but also the broader county-wide tax base helped open up additional funds for renovation and expansion. In 1991 the Lake Hills Library expanded by 1,400 square feet. The following year, groundbreaking ceremonies were held for a new downtown library.

The 80,000-square-foot Bellevue Library opened on July 1, 1993, at a total cost of slightly more than $21 million, including site acquisition and improvements, building design and construction, and materials and furnishings. It is the largest library in the King County Library System. Designed by Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Partnership, the building won the 1994 Associated General Contractors of Washington's Award for Excellence in Construction and the 1995 ALA/AIA National Award of Excellence for Library Architecture.

The award-winning Bellevue Library is three stories tall and contains more than 600,000 volumes in its collections. Large windows and skylights provide ample amounts of natural lighting. A children's area, adult fiction, and media collections are on the first floor along with check-out and information desks. The second and third floors hold the non-fiction collections and the second floor is also home of the library's public reference collection. This includes the Eastside Genealogical Library, a collection donated by the Eastside Genealogical Society that includes regional genealogies and histories, marriage and cemetery records, and passenger and immigrant lists. In addition, the Bellevue Library is an official depository for U.S. government documents, and also holds many state and local government documents.

A Home for Art

Beyond being a place to research and read, the Bellevue Library contains an impressive amount of public art for its patrons to enjoy. Upon entering the library, visitors are greeted by Check It Out, an interactive cut-glass window by Ann Troutner and Paul Maroni. Visitors can place their faces into one of three characters that have Fresnel lenses that make their visages seem larger or smaller. Past that, the main hallway contains a series of porcelain enamel portraits by Garth Edwards, depicting a variety of historic figures including Frida Kahlo, J. D. Salinger, Duke Ellington, and Golda Meir.

Other artwork inside the library includes the statue Reynard the Fox by Northwest favorite Richard Beyer (1925-2012); Golden Boy, a bronze statue of a reclining lion by Leo Osborne; Turtle Island in the children's area; and custom lights of twisted glass by Walter White. Even the restrooms contain artwork, with ceramic tiles designed by Portland artist Anne Storrs that feature birds, bugs, and flowers of the Pacific Northwest.

The giant mosaic mural created by Sepp Mayrhuber in honor of Marguerite Groves was too large to move into the new structure. The City of Bellevue retained the mural and placed it on display at the Northwest Arts Center.

In addition to the art, many people who visit the library also enjoy the adjoining Ashwood Plaza, a City of Bellevue park that borders the south edge of the building. The city acquired the land for the park at the same time that, in partnership with KCLS, it acquired the site for the library, and plans for the park were developed in conjunction with the design of the library.

Into the Twenty-first Century

The King County Library System's largest library has continued to expand its collections and its facilities in the more than twenty years since it opened. In 1993, the Bellevue Library had more than 60 computers available for public use, an impressive number for the time. Many more computers have been added, and WiFi access has been provided.

Almost from the time it opened, staff members noticed that many patrons didn't just check out materials and leave, but often stayed at the library for long periods. Because the library is such a hub of activity, a new parking garage was added to the structure in 2013 that nearly doubled the number of parking spaces to a total of 362. The garage features many aesthetic amenities, including a trellis on the upper level and an exterior "green wall" of living plants. The parking-expansion project, which received a 2014 Civic Design Award from the American Institute of Architects Washington Council, also added to the library's art collection. The main garage entrance displays an installation by Northwest artist Buster Simpson (b. 1942), who has created public artworks in cities around the world. Vernacular is, in the words of a KCLS report, "a fitting piece of artwork" for the location, consisting of black-and-white and multi-colored vanity license plates affixed to an 18-foot-high stainless-steel-mesh wall ("Delivering on a Promise ...").

In its less than 100 years of existence, the Bellevue Library has grown and transformed, in ways probably almost unimaginable to its founders. What began as a collection of a few hundred donated books maintained by volunteers in the back room of a cafe has become today's KCLS Bellevue Library holding more than 600,000 books, reference materials, films, music, and other media in a large and airy public building that also offers the latest in high technology and an impressive art collection. The library's transformation mirrors that of the area it serves, from a small rural community to an urban crossroads, financial and commercial center, and high-tech hub.


Lucille McDonald, Bellevue: Its First 100 Years (Bellevue: Friends of the Bellevue Library, 1984); Alan J. Stein and the HistoryLink Staff, Bellevue Timeline: The Story of Washington's Leading Edge City from Homesteads to High Rises, 1863-2003 (Bellevue: City of Bellevue, 2004); "Bellevue Urged to Retain Its Library Contract with County," The Seattle Times, September 22, 1955, p. 15; "East Side Groups Collect Local Historical Material for Room in New Bellevue Library," The Seattle Times, March 20, 1960, Sunday magazine, p. 14; "Bellevue Will Dedicate Its New Library," The Seattle Times, January 5, 1961, p. 5; "Bellevue Library Planned," The Seattle Times, May 2, 1965, p. 34; Jean Batie, "Ancient Process Used for Bellevue Mural," The Seattle Times, February 21, 1969, p. 82; Lansing Jones, "Bellevue Library Checks Out Joining King County System," The Seattle Times, January 9, 1985, p. H-5; Joni Balter, "Annexation of Bellevue Libraries is Approved," The Seattle Times, May 22, 1985, p. H-1; Emmett Murray, "Bellevue Library Has Seen Share of Reincarnations," The Seattle Times, July 1, 1993, p. B-1; Steve Johnston, "A Place to Read and Dream -- Welcoming Spaces, Cozy Nooks Grace New Bellevue Library," The Seattle Times, July 1, 1993, p. 1; Katherine Long, "User Friendly, Built on an Explosion of Information, Bellevue Library is Alive and Bustling," The Seattle Times, December 2, 1993, p. 1; "About Bellevue Library," King County Library System (KCLS) website accessed December 7, 2016 (; "History," KCLS website accessed December 7, 2016 (; "Delivering on a Promise to Voters: KCLS Capital Improvement Plan, 11 Year Report, September 2015," KCLS website accessed October 10, 2016 (, pp. 4, 6, 23; further information provided by the Bellevue Library and the Eastside Heritage Center.

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