Northeast Library


Northeast Library

6801 35th Avenue NE

Est. 1954

The source of ​content for this page is from the Seattle Landmark Nomination Application researched and prepared by Susan Boyle of BOLA Architecture Planning, Inc. and the Seattle Public Library,

The Northeast Library

City residents living in the northeast Seattle received their first municipal library services in March 1906 when the University Branch opened in the University Pharmacy located at the entrance to the University of Washington campus. Northeast Seattle, comprised of the Ravenna-Bryant, Wedgwood, and View Ridge neighborhoods, was known as a bedroom enclave for UW professors and graduate students. As with many close-in suburban neighborhoods, the area exemplified a pattern of pre and post war growth in Seattle with single-family residences.  The neighborhoods’ buildings are typically single story, with wood frame construction and extensive domestic landscaping. Commerce in these areas was limited to neighborhood services, such as grocery and drug stores, with some restaurants and cafes. Institutions were related to a primary pattern of residential use with churches, retirement and nursing homes, schools and daycare facilities.

The residential population of the Northeast district had increased over 100% between the years 1940 and 1950, and this post-war growth showed no signs of diminishing. In 1944, Seattle’s budget included an addition to the Central Library and construction of several branch libraries. On February 1, 1950, the Finance Committee of the Seattle City Council requested the Planning Commission to render its recommendation on the purchase of a branch library in the Ravenna- Bryant district.  With new homeowners in the district being predominantly young families, city officials recognized demands for new school and library services.

When the Northeast branch opened it was practically empty, but it moved from the bottom in circulation to nearly the top within six months. Two years later, the Northeast Library became the most heavily used branch in the SPL system, a position it has held for over forty years.

The Architect, Paul Thiry

In 1953, an article in The Seattle Times indicated that the Seattle firm of Kirk & Steinbrueck was initially selected for the design of the Northeast Library. However, architect Paul Thiry ultimately received the commission for the design of the library.

Paul Thiry (1904 – 1993) was responsible for a wide variety of buildings during his lengthy career and is credited with introducing European Modernism to Seattle and the Northwest.  Thiry’s early application of modernist principles brought him recognition, but he was also an early critic of the Modern movement. In 1945, he noted “. . . the Pacific Northwest should develop a type of architecture indigenous to this part of the country – one which will take advantage of the natural surroundings and beautiful views that the Pacific northwest offers.”

It was during this period in his career that Thiry designed the Northeast Library. The design of this building successfully integrated a single-story, low-gable pavilion building into its residential neighborhood. Thiry’s design of the Northeast Library was recognized immediately by local and national publications and received an award from the AIA in 1957. The building was cited in Victor Steinbrueck’s 1962 Seattle Cityscape as “a prototype for handsome neighborhood libraries . . . a residential idiom, with considerable restraint and confidence. . . a building of lasting quality.” More recently this specific building was recognized as pivotal in the emergence of Northwest Modernism in the 1950s.

Thiry’s view of Modernism was a clear departure from that of practitioners who utilized the standard palette of the International Style.  His view of the Northwest environment and his use of materials lead him early to a personal interpretation of Modernism, as a “softer, more regional variant.” This style became known as Northwest Modernism, or Northwest Contemporary. Thiry characterized his interpretation in humanistic terms: “We need to design with respect for people, for the person, for environment, and in scale and harmony with nature. . . We need an environment that is the direct result of our cultural aspirations.”

The Site & Building

The Northeast Library is located on the corner of Northeast 68th Street and 35th Avenue Northeast. The site was landscaped with what are now mature conifer trees, and a small Japanese-inspired garden at the entry. An exterior reading space, defined by a low, half-circular fence and bench, projected into the landscape on the north side. The building is bordered by single family residences to the west and north, an apartment building to the south, and neighborhood businesses and churches along 35th Avenue Northeast to the east.  The neighborhood context was an important determinant in the building’s design. After its completion, it was recognized that “the Northeast Branch of the Seattle Public Library…carried out the architect’s idea that institutional buildings constructed in residential sections be compatible with surrounding environments.”

The library is constructed of an exposed steel column and girder system, supporting glulam beams. The columns punctuate a structural grid of seven bays running north to south, and eight bays running east to west. Modular aluminum sash windows run above solid panel walls and concrete stem walls and serve as infill between the columns. The concrete stem walls are consistently level, banding the library, except at the entry and courtyard access. The building sits on a concrete slab-on-grade, with a partial service basement located on the west side.  The roof form is a single, encompassing, low gable with a ridge along the north-south axis.

Exterior finishes are the expressive quality of the structural materials themselves. Steel and glulam beams are exposed, the aluminum window frames have been painted, and the exterior walls are infilled with terrazzo-like cast concrete panels. The steel framing members are exposed between the panels and at the corners, reinforcing the clear articulation of structure.

The main entry is located on the south façade of the library and is marked by full-height glazing. The entry is covered and set inward one bay from the front face of the structural grid. The concrete tile soffits at the underside of the glulam beams provide overhangs at the perimeter. Directly adjacent to the entry door is the original book drop and a surface-mounted glazed display case.

The library’s interior follows an open plan except the enclosed staff areas and public restrooms in the building’s southwest corner, and a glass-partitioned meeting room at the northwest corner.  The open flexible layout was innovative for its time. The functionality of the plan was recognized in 1962 as “a prototype for neighborhood libraries.”

Legibility between the interior spaces and exterior façades is an important principle of Modernism. It is illustrated in the built-in shelving which lines the library perimeter and corresponds to the height of exterior cast stone panels.

The ceiling is finished with 12”x12” acoustical ceiling tile with the painted steel and glulam structure left exposed. The only soffited portion of the open gabled ceiling is over the staff core.

Banks of 2’x4’ fluorescent lights run north to south.  Due to its open plan and lofty interior space, there is a sense of clarity on the interior. The exterior, with its simple form and materials, and mature landscape continues to express the building’s Modern origins.

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