Tacoma Public Library
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The History of Tacoma's Main Library

Coming to the pioneering community of Tacoma in 1884, Grace Moore missed the easy access to books she enjoyed in her native San Francisco. In 1886, Mrs. Moore led a group of 18 women to organize a circulating library in her South Tacoma home. The club’s charter members donated their personal collections of books and patrons paid 25 cents for the privilege of borrowing from the Puget Sound area’s first circulating library. Bachelors, wishing to use the home as a quiet place to read, paid 50 cents.

Tacoma's Main Library was once located in the downtwon City Hall (right)).By 1893, the Mercantile Library, as the women called it, outgrew Mrs. Moore’s sitting room. Its 2,000 volumes were given to the city for a free public library. The library was housed in a series of buildings in the downtown area until, in 1893, the library moved into the City Hall.

In early 1901, the Reverend Calvin Stewart, a Presbyterian minister, was in New York trying to secure Carnegie funds for Whitworth College. Though these efforts did not produce a gift for the college, Reverend Stewart was introduced to James Bertram, Andrew Carnegie’s secretary. With Bertram’s help, Reverend Stewart secured $75,000 in Carnegie funds for construction of a public Library in Tacoma. The donation was made on the conditions that the city provide a suitable site for the library and expend $7,500 yearly for maintenance.

The search for a site for the new library resulted in a heated political skirmish between political wards in the north and south end of the city. The south end wards championed a site at South 12th Street and Tacoma Avenue. The north end wards advocated a site near Wright Park or at ninth Street and St. Helen's Avenue. The council remained stalemated until Mayor Campbell professed his support of the Tacoma Avenue site. With the mayor's endorsement, the deadlock was broken. Tacoma would soon have the 85th Carnegie Library built in the U. S. (and the first in Washington State).

Tacoma' Carnegie LibraryAs designed by the New York architectural firm of Jardine, Kent and Jardine, Tacoma’s Carnegie Library represented the popular eclectic Renaissance architectural influences prevalent at the turn of the century. The building featured a grand staircase of White Vermont marble, an ornate copper-clad dome, decorative stenciling, Ionic columns and high ceilings. The new library was dedicated on June 4, 1903.

In the years that followed, the Tacoma Public Library grew to meet the needs of a growing community. By 1945, five library book stations served the city’s flourishing neighborhoods. Three branch libraries met the reading and information needs of residents in the north and south end of the city. However, the library’s needs were quickly surpassing the space available at the 43 year old Carnegie Library - a new central library building was urgently needed.

The first step towards library expansion was taken in August 1946, when the Tacoma City Council authorized placement of a $1,000,000 library construction bond Issue in the November election. Tacoma voters overwhelmingly approved the library construction bond. As in 1901 however, reaching a decision about the new library’s location would prove to be difficult, time-consuming and fraught with controversy.

The Library Board of Trustees were committed to a downtown location at the corner of South 11th and Market Streets for the new building. There was considerable pressure to include the new library in plans for a downtown civic center at 13th and Market Streets. Although they had reservations about its appropriateness, the Library Board agreed to the location in the spirit of community cooperation. The voters didn't cooperate however, and the bond issue to fund the civic center was soundly defeated. With the failure of the civic center, the library then revived plans to locate at 11th and Market Streets. The downtown business community vigorously objected, citing concerns over Tacoma's Main Library in 1952increased traffic, the lack of parking, the price of the building site and the negative effects which the library would have on property values and the potential growth of the downtown core. Site selection came to a virtual standstill until, in January 1949, Library Trustees proposed to build the new facility at South 11th and Tacoma Avenue next to the existing Carnegie Library. The new site received the unanimous support of the City Council and downtown business Interests. Construction began in March 1951 -- more than four years after passage of the bond.

Because of unanticipated costs, two features of the project were quickly abandoned: the renovation of the Carnegie Library and a rooftop parking lot on the third floor of the new building. The Carnegie renovation would have resulted in a unified look for the two buildings as plans were to cover Carnegie's facade to match that of the new library.
Construction proceeded quickly and the city's new Main Library was dedicated on Sunday, November 2, 1952. Total cost of the 64,981 square foot building was $1,438,000.

These two buildings form the heart of Tacoma Public Library's new Main Library. The dazzling effects brought about by 1991's $5.1 million renovation can be seen throughout the beautiful library -- expansive interior spaces; a unified exterior; a stunning new entryway crowned by the Internationally renowned James Carpenter's magnificent dichroic glass sculpture Leaves of Glass; and the glorious restoration of the Carnegie Library with its elegant marble stairwell, graceful columns and spectacular glass skylight. Everything's changed. Nothing's changed. Tacoma's Main Library is still the heart and soul of our city.



Last Updated 21.07.2005