Editor’s Note: The following article was researched by Elizabeth Stewart, the director of the Renton History Museum, for the June quarterly of the Renton Historical Society and Museum.
Libraries have always been a symbolic center of Renton life. From the “library” of Renton Cooperative Coal to the 1914 Carnegie Library to the 1966 library-over-the-river, repositories for learning continued a tradition that started with the striving immigrants who first settled our city. Throughout the city’s history, Rentonites have acknowledged the need to grow and learn, and to have a place dedicated to that endeavor.
As early as 1907, the Renton Mine Association had amassed a collection of reference books that served as the core of the Renton High School library. In the 19th century Workingmen’s Associations in England and Wales often maintained collections of reading material for the betterment of laborers, so it is not surprising that Renton coal miners would continue the tradition. Renton High School continued to build on the Mine Association’s collection, and by 1925 the school had more than 750 volumes for student use.
When Renton began talking about a public library in 1913, the city had fewer than 3,000 citizens. Yet one foresighted woman, Neva Bostwick Douglas, took the initiative to apply to the Carnegie Foundation for funds. Libraries were one of philanthropist Andrew Carnegie’s pet projects, and his foundation assisted in the construction of 2,500 of them across the country. Mrs. Douglas’s application succeeded in winning $10,000 in grant money to build the first public library in Renton.
While everyone acknowledged the importance of a library — particularly if foundation funds were paying for it — the site was controversial: many complained that it would be too far out of town. City Council could not agree on a location, but securing a site was a prerequisite for accepting the Carnegie funds. State Librarian J. M. Hitt advised Council that “the all-important thing … is a central location … in the midst of saloons if necessary.” But when Ignazio and Jennie Sartori donated three lots on the edge of North Renton, the decision was made. The City could now officially accept the foundation’s funds and construction could proceed. Still, opposition persisted. A newspaper editorial advised readers: “Don’t let the thought that you don’t like the location stop you from doing your duty. The library is here, just the same as the Cedar river is here[,] and it is your duty to make the most of it.”
When Renton opened its sturdy Georgian showpiece on March 11, 1914, it was only eight years behind Seattle’s library. A Seattle construction firm was able to bring the project in at the $10,000 price tag, and the Renton City Council appropriated another $1,000 for salaries, books, and maintenance. Businesses and individuals donated almost $800 more, but Renton High students worried “that is not near enough for the proper equipment of the library.” The first Renton Library was designed with space for 8,000 volumes; it opened with a collection of books donated by individuals and the Seattle Library. One of the most well-known librarians, Winifred Daniels, served for more than 25 years, finally retiring in 1954. When she started in 1927, the entire annual library budget was $2,500; and Miss Daniels’s salary was $80 a month.
As early as the 1930s, Renton began to outgrow its library; with the explosion of Renton’s population during the war years, the Carnegie Library was bursting at the seams. A study conducted by the Washington State Library found that the city’s population had increased by 257 percent between 1940 and 1950. The library built for 8,000 books now held 68,000. In 1944 the King County library established a branch in the Renton Highlands to serve the new residents of wartime housing there; on January 1, 1947, the Highlands branch became part of the Renton Public Library. The addition of the Highlands branch further strained the library’s resources, so much so that the Library Board briefly considered closing that branch for lack of resources. As early as 1947, the Library Board began discussing affiliation with the county library system as one solution to the lack of funds, a question that they raised repeatedly during their meetings in the 1950s.
Nevertheless, cautious voters defeated three bond issues before a $150,000 bond issue was passed in November 1964. As with the Carnegie Library, two factors were uppermost in the minds of voters: cost and building site. A survey indicated that many Renton residents preferred a site closer to downtown businesses and pedestrian traffic, but City Council insisted that only city-owned sites could be considered, and these were few. The successful bond issue was championed by the Greater Renton Chamber of Commerce and the League of Women Voters and had at its center the vision of a civic complex on the Cedar River. This vision made all the difference. Renton residents were captivated by the prize-winning design for a new library that would straddle the river, near a new City Hall, senior center, community auditorium, and park grounds.
The Record-Chronicle attributed the Carnegie Library’s demise to “the influence and enthusiasm of the community’s disciples of progress.” “No longer will [the library’s] early-20th-Century [sic] architecture mar a landscape graced by the new over-the-river library and the junior-skyscraper city hall,” the newspaper concluded. Even some of the old library’s former champions were happy to see it demolished to make way for the new. Remembering the flights of creaky stairs and cramped quarters, Miss Daniels declared, “That building can’t be torn down too soon to suit me.” Yet not everyone was impressed by the new library’s unique design. Publisher John Fournier lamented the fact that the Carnegie Library’s classic architecture was being replaced by “modern glass hothouses and concrete structures which have little form and less beauty.”
The new library, designed by Johnson-Campanella & Co., stretched 80 feet across the Cedar River, resting on 12 giant columns and the riverbanks themselves. Materials that were state-of-the-art for 1966 were used, but the library’s unique design and location required that book stacks be located on the left bank of the river, because of their weight. Some of the library’s new features included “a telephone-intercom system, a listening unit in the music department, and waterlights to highlight the river at night.” Air conditioning was omitted, however, because of the cost. The total cost for the project was $327,560 for 20,000 square feet. The old Carnegie Library was torn down in 1968.
More than 1,000 people attended the opening of the hard-fought new library on April 17, 1966. Laurie Renton, an 8-year-old great-grandniece of Capt. William Renton, cut the ribbon, and Louis Barei, past president of the library’s Board of Trustees, served as master of ceremonies. Architect David Johnston presented Mayor Donald W. Custer with a golden key to the library. Honored guests were long-term librarian Winifred Daniels and Florence Guitteau Storey, holder of the first Renton Library card issued in 1914. The iconic library-over-the-river, a one-of-a-kind landmark, was born.
By the 1980s the combination of advancing technology and age made library staff worry about their ability to deliver the best possible services to Renton readers and researchers. The Library’s Board and City Council wrestled with ways to accommodate new technology — more computer stations, increased need for electricity, advanced security systems, and growing interest in ebooks and online references—in the beloved 1960s building, just as Carnegie Library proponents had done 50 years earlier. As early as 1962 State Librarian Dorothy Doyle questioned whether a community with a tax base of less than 100,000 could support an independent branch library system, and the recession of 2008 exacerbated that challenge. In February 2010 voters made the decision to annex to the King County Library System.