The Evolution of the Seattle Public Library Site

01 Full View-compressed

    The block which is now occupied by the Seattle’s Central Public Library is bounded by 4th and 5th avenues and Spring and Madison streets. This parcel of land has gone through many changes since it first become a part of the City of Seattle. Originally the area around this block was part of the claims of C. D. Boren, A. A. Denny H. L. Yesler. In 1875 this area, from what is now Yesler Way to Seneca Street between 1st Avenue and 10th Avenue, was added to the then Town of Seattle. On the plat map for this Addition the block I am investigating (No. 19) was laid out as a “Public Square”.

02_Library Block-compressed

            The noble dream of that Public Square apparently did not last very long. The Sandborn fire insurance map of 1883 shows a number of private structures occupying the block less than a decade later. The most substantial of these buildings was the mansion of Seattle attorney James McNaught. By the time the Seattle Public Library was seeking a site to construct the new Carnegie funded library in 1902 this grand house had already evolved. First it had been used as the first home of the Rainier Club and when the city purchased the entire block for $100,000 it was a boarding house.

Sanborn 1893-compressed      Carnagie_Madison_McNaughty Mansion&Providence Hosp_1891

            Our first Public Library on this site was a massive building in the Beaux-Arts style designed by Chicago architect Peter J. Weber. It was dedicated on December 19, 1906. The construction and furnishing of the library was paid for with a grant of $220,000 from philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. The negotiations that lead to this sizable sum produced the largest grant made by Carnegie to any city except Washington D.C. and his hometown of Pittsburgh up until that time.


            Although in its day the Carnegie Library of Seattle’s 55,000 square feet of floor space was impressive by the early 1950s it had become seriously out of date and overcrowded. The voters of Seattle approved a bond issue to construct a replacement building in 1956. This second generation of the Central Library was designed by Leonard Bindon and John L. Wright and provided 206,000 square feet to house the ever expanding collections and facilities of the Seattle Public Library.

2nd Building_-4th&Madison-june-1-1960-goweyweb1

            Moving the Seattle Public Library into the 21st century voters approved a bond measure to renovate the system that included funding to replace the downtown library building. The current incarnation on the site of Block No. 19 of the 1875 Addition to the Town of Seattle is a gleaming 11-floor creation of steel and glass designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas that sports 362,987 square feet of space. This structure is truly a statement of digital age modernity; a long way evolutionarily from the McNaught Mansion that made room for it a century ago.

3rd Building_4th&Madison_2004



Bagley, Clarence B. 1916, History of Seattle: From the Earliest Settlement to the Present Time. The SJ Clarke Publishing Co.: Chicago.

The Free Online Encyclopedia of WashingtonState History. Accessed April 26, 2014,

Hacket,Rigina, May 19, 2004 Seattle Public Library: Design is fun on a grand scale.  Accessed April 26, 2014,

Plat of an Addition to the City of Seattle, Recorded March 18, 1875, University of Washington Special Collections, Map Folios, Block No. 19.

Sandborn Map Co. 1884, Seattle Washington WT. Sandborn Map & Publishing Co.: New York.

Sandborn Map Co. 1893, Insurance Maps SeattleWashington 1904 Vol. 1. Sandborn Perris Map Co.: New York.

Sandborn Map Co. 1904, Insurance Maps SeattleWashington 1904 Vol. 1. Sandborn Map Co.: New York.

Seattle Public Library, Brief History of the Seattle Public Library. Accessed April 25, 2014,

Seattle Public Library, Special Collections Online, Accessed April 25, 2014,

Sherrard, J. R. Seattle Now and Then: The Palace Hip Theater. Accessed April 26, 2014,

1 thought on “The Evolution of the Seattle Public Library Site

  1. What happened to the old Carnegie library building?
    It looks remarkably similar to the Boston public library, though perhaps not as heavily decorated.
    There’s an opportunity here to talk about the effects of big projects, like Carnegie’s national push for libraries, on a local scale.

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