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The many lives of the Ballard Carnegie Library

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It may not be vast, but it contains multitudes

Via the National Parks Service

During the second half of his life, steel tycoon and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, once the richest person in the world, decided to do something kind of unusual for a millionaire: He began giving his fortune away. That included funding the construction of more than 2,500 libraries across the world between 1883 and 1929, beginning in his native Scotland and the city he’d emigrated to as a child, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, before expanding the program to Barbados, Australia, South Africa, and across Europe, among other locales. Carnegie said that reading should be available to everyone.

The United States was the lucky recipient of more than half of these libraries, and by 1919, when the last grant for a Carnegie library was issued, more than half of the libraries in the United States were Carnegie libraries. When Carnegie died, he’d given almost 90 percent of his millions away to colleges and universities, charities, and other organizations, in keeping with his own quote: “The man who dies rich dies disgraced.”

The Ballard Carnegie Library in 2002.
Seattle Municipal Archives item 135290

Seattle, even luckier than most American cities of comparable size, ended up with eight of these libraries. All but one of Seattle’s Carnegie Libraries still stand today—the downtown library was demolished in 1957 to make way for a larger facility. Of those seven remaining Carnegie libraries, only one of them isn’t a library any longer: the little brick Ballard Carnegie Library.

Carnegie Free Public Library, as it was initially named, per the raised letters on the main façade, is located on Market Street between 20th and 22nd. This Neoclassical gem was designed not by W. Marbury Somervell, the usual architect of Seattle’s Carnegie libraries, but by Henderson Ryan, who also designed the University District’s opulent Neptune Theater, and erected on a budget of $15,000.

Its location was chosen in the heart of downtown Ballard, which was at the time a small community of loggers and fishermen that had sprung up in the late 1800s. The fledgling town was stoked to have its own library in 1904, replacing a small reading room that had been founded by The Dewey Women’s Christian Temperance Union three years prior at Leary Way and 2nd Avenue (now 20th Avenue Northwest).

The lot the library was erected on is just 100 by 100 square feet, with a pressed-brick exterior with stone trimmings measuring 64 by 57 feet. The building was partially constructed by a chain gang of prisoners, supervised by police. The interior, finished in stained fir and weathered oak, featured radiating stacks, a men’s smoking room (later converted to a reading room), and a ladies’ “conversation room,” along with a 500-seat auditorium on the second floor.

The opening ceremony was a major party and included performances by The Thurston Orchestra, the Singing Society Norden, the Ballard Bard, and the Hedley Quartette of Violins, among other acts.

After the gala was over, a small problem arose: Carnegie’s generous grant covered the price of land and construction, but didn’t actually provide any books. Right away, a call went out from its first librarian, George Hitchcock, to the public asking for books to be donated. The board of trustees sent a wagon out on the streets of Ballard, house to house, to collect volumes.

People were excited about the new library, and the endeavor became a proud community effort. The Ballard News proclaimed that “It is hoped each visitor will bring a book to start the new library,” and the paper began regularly listing new additions to the library’s inventory. Only six weeks after opening, they already had more than 300 books.

It cost a nickel for a library card, and you couldn’t check books out on Sundays. Although it was later removed, the library originally had a turnstile to count the number of visitors. Hitchcock estimated there were around 12,000 after the first year.

In 1907, Ballard was annexed to the city of Seattle, and the Ballard Library became the first major branch of the Seattle Public Library System. The Ballard branch inherited over 2,000 books from the downtown Seattle branch after it was temporarily abandoned due to the Dearborn Street Regrade. It also inherited the downtown branch’s librarian, Dorothy Hurlbut, the same year, after Hitchcock left the librarian life to go into the real estate business.

In during World War I, the Ballard library became a hub of community activity, hosting Red Cross classes, English courses, and displays concerning news on the war in Europe. Six-month “Americanization” courses for recent immigrants were also held there. During the Second World War, the branch librarian completed Air Warden training, and the staff, also trained in first aid, held blackout drills.

In was during World War II that Lucille Smith became the first black student to earn an undergraduate degree in “librarianship” from the University of Washington. Born in Lewiston, Montana, in 1919, she was possibly inspired by her sister Alma Smith Jacobs, who had been the first black state librarian of Montana. During her studies, Smith was assigned to the Ballard Library for her practicum, making her one of the first black people in Seattle to practice as a librarian, if not the first.

The Ballard Carnegie Library was lovely, but it was little, and after 50 years, Ballard had grown significantly, and a larger facility was needed to serve the community. The Carnegie building was replaced in 1963 when the 7,296-square-foot Ballard Library No. 2 was constructed, just a few blocks to the west on 24th Avenue Northwest and Northwest 57th Street. The old Carnegie library was leased by an antique store, Pandora’s Castle, whose owner, Karoline Morrison, later purchased the building with a partner for $67,000 in 1977.

The same year, Morrison requested City of Seattle Landmark status for the Ballard Carnegie Building, but although it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, the actual landmark designation took 35 years to be finalized, finally being put on the books by the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board in 2002.

Pandora’s Castle closed in 1987, and Morrison, who still owns the library building, has rented the space out to various tenants in the years since, including but not limited to a a kilt tailor and a fancy French restaurant—called Carnegie’s.

In 1998, Ballard again outgrew its second library, and an even larger Ballard Library was built nearby in 2004 at 22nd Avenue Northwest and Northwest 57th Street, opening to the public on May 14, 2005. The super-modern current facility includes a “green roof” covered in more than 18,000 plants, a periscope, and a 3,100-square-foot Ballard Neighborhood Service Center.

Today, with its bulletproof landmark status at last—which makes it exceedingly difficult for it to be torn down—most of the space in this grand old library is occupied by kitschy Australia-and-New Zealand–themed pub Kangaroo & Kiwi, which moved there from its old Green Lake location on Aurora in the summer of 2012. A few other businesses rent small spaces on the upper floors, including an massage practice and a pilates studio.