OPEN FOR BUSINESS 'AS USUAL'
by Kirby Lindsay
This column originally appeared in The North Seattle Herald-Outlook on April 20, 2005
The Fremont Library re-opened on April 16th to cheers and applause – and my barely muffled shouts of joy. City Librarian Deborah Jacobs, Library Board Trustee Gordon McHenry Jr., Mayor Nickels’ Chief of Departmental Operations John Franklin, as well as City Councilmembers Nick Licata, Richard Conlin, Jan Drago, Richard McIver and David Della attended with speeches and introductions common to openings. More importantly to me, we crowded in dozens of Fremonsters young and old – residents, business representatives and artists – to support of our library.
The Fremont Library stands as testament to our community’s activism. A farmer named Erastus Witter first organized a library here in 1894. Witter contacted 10 prominent citizens and solicited pledges of $5 a year toward acquiring books and space. He kept the books at his residence until 1901 when he opened the Fremont Reading Room Association to the second floor of the Fremont Drug Co. The drugstore owner, Sidney S. Elder, served as Association President.
When Elder took a position on the Seattle Public Library (SPL) Board his efforts led them to take over operations. With Witter as librarian the branch officially opened on February 2, 1903, with 1,000 volumes – and we remain the oldest operating branch in the Seattle Public Library system (Outlook, April 26, 1972.)
The Fremont Commercial Club petitioned the library board for a permanent structure and in 1916 the Businessmen's Club of Fremont launched a drive to collect money. In 1917, philanthropist Andrew Carnegie donated $35,000 for a building if the community provided land, books, and staff. The community raised $7,000 through rummage sales, dances, card parties, variety shows, a carnival and street fair. With $3,000 of help from the City of Seattle, they purchased the site at 731 North 35th Street.
To save money, a city architect, Daniel R. Huntington, designed the building – now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board. The Fremont Library opened on July 27th, 1921. The mission-revival structure has terra-cotta bricks covered with stucco; a very distinctive red tile roof; tile-trimmed, arched windows; and high-gabled, open-beamed ceilings.
The original Fremont Library building photo might have, except for landscaping, been taken this week. The 1998 “Libraries for All” bond measure renovation recently completed didn’t change the outside at all. Biwell Construction Inc. converted storage space (taking us to 6,840 square feet of library), improved the ventilation, constructed a wheelchair-accessible restroom (to serve the newly wheelchair-accessible meeting room), upgraded the electrical service and installed a new boiler. Plus, we now have 13 public computers (up from seven), an updated collection capacity, and self-checkout stations.
It may be hard for visitors to know we spent $749,267 while everything looks the same. The work focused on infrastructure. Inside they preserved the timber trusses and restored the shelves to their original, shorter height to allow more daylight from the broad windows. Hoshide Williams Architects redesigned the interior of the space, known as the reading room, so that it draws the eye to the chairs and readers. The computer stations no longer take center stage, instead they’ve been tucked away for privacy and quiet, and the circulation desk sits to one side of the entrance.
As a regular library patron, I’m impressed but honestly the building often falls into my peripheral view. The staff concerns me more. While Bette Fogle retired during the dark days of the library’s closure, thankfully the rest returned. May Huang and Rachel Terry aided me during my first visit but the sight of Carl Kaproth, the unofficial assistant manager of our branch, gave me a sigh of relief. Carl came to Fremont in 1983 and knows more about this community than many of us who live here. “A lot chose to come back,” Caroline Ullman, Media Representative for SPL, told me about the staff, “they like the community as much as the community likes them.”
The celebration to open our anxiously awaited and much improved library began promptly at noon. Besides dignitaries, from the City and the neighborhood, we also had Captain Leroy & The Zydeco Locals entertain us while Starbucks provided drinks and cookies. Finally, the Fremont Bell Ringers, led by Rodman Miller, closed the party, uncharactistically (for Fremont), ahead of schedule.
Rodman collects bells, mostly fire alarm bells, and always looks for more. How many bells he has dictates how many bell-ringers can participate. About twenty ringers paraded from the Rocket to the library for an almost solemn blessing with the bells. They ended in our new adjoining park with Lulu, the Library Fairy, cheering them on the whole way.
Once the bell’s echoes faded away, Joan Johnson, our Branch Manager, returned to business as usual. As I perused the aisles - and the improved collection - I wondered briefly about business and if, in Fremont, usual is ever possible?
Thanks to David Wilma, HistoryLink and the Seattle Public Library for source information for this column.
©2010 Kirby Lindsay. This column is protected by intellectual property laws, including U.S. copyright laws. Reproduction, adaptation or distribution without permission is prohibited.