Skyway Library, King County Library System

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 2/13/2017
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20289

The Skyway Library is located in Skyway, an unincorporated area of King County between Seattle and Renton. The library began in 1953 when residents decided they wanted a permanent library instead of just bookmobile service. They started the Skyway Branch Library Board, which raised funds and contracted with the King County Library System (KCLS) to operate a library. The Skyway Library opened in the back of a bakery on March 14, 1953. It moved to several other temporary locations that year. In late 1953, the board purchased a portable housing unit, hauled it to a Skyway site, and converted it into a library in 1954. The small, improvised library served the community until 1970, when KCLS built a new 5,200-square-foot building. That library served as a Skyway civic and cultural center for 46 years. In 2016 KCLS opened its new $8.3 million, 8,000-square-foot Skyway Library, which today serves Skyway's increasingly diverse population.

Skyway Park: High on a Hill

Skyway is situated high on a hill, with Lake Washington to the east, the Duwamish River to the west, Seattle to the north and Renton to the south. This ridge, full of Douglas fir and cedar, was familiar territory to members of the Duwamish Tribe for many millennia. Loggers, among the non-Native newcomers beginning to settle the region, arrived at the south end of Lake Washington as early as 1853 and began to cut the prodigious stands of trees on the hills. In the 1880s, Taylor Mill, a large sawmill, was established on the shore of Lake Washington, below the area that would become Skyway, accelerating the pace of logging. Many other sawmills followed. The area now known as Bryn Mawr, which is on the lakeshore below Skyway, began to fill up with mill workers and other settlers.

By 1900 Skyway was mostly denuded of Douglas fir and only a few stands of cedar were left. However, other forces were already bringing new residents to Bryn Mawr and the high ground above it. Just before the turn of the century, the Seattle and Rainier Beach Railway, a streetcar line, was extended from downtown Seattle all the way to Renton, right through Bryn Mawr. This spurred residential development, because now people could hop on the "Galloping Goose," as the streetcar was called, and get quickly to Seattle (Hoyt, 10). Housing developments sprang up over the next few decades. Businesses also sprang up, including a popular greenhouse and nursery. When World War II arrived, the Boeing Company attracted thousands of workers to its main plant, just downstream on the Duwamish River, and to its newer aircraft plant in Renton.

Nelse Mortensen & Company, a Seattle real estate firm, recognized a need for new housing for these wartime workers. In the summer of 1944, the company introduced a massive new development, the Skyway Park Addition, with 500 news homes for sale, centered on Renton Avenue and South 126th Street. A Seattle Times story about building permits for Skyway Park on July 4, 1944, marked the first appearance in the paper of the place name "Skyway," evidently chosen by the developers to invoke not only the development's location on a ridge, but also its proximity to the area's bustling aircraft factories. A September 1944 ad read:

"Skyway Park could be called a city of its own, approximately 120 acres, within half a mile of the Seattle city limits; Renton, with its fine schools, shops and churches, is within a mile and one-half ... . The Boeing Aircraft Renton Plant and the Pacific Car and Foundry and the Great Industrial Plants of Seattle offer to War Defense and Post-War Workers a permanent place of employment, and 'Skyway Park' is the ideal place to own a home and raise your family" ("Important Announcement ...").

The developer called it "the largest group of modern F.H.A. [Federal Housing Administration] homes ever built in the Pacific Northwest" ("500 New Homes").

Starting the Skyway Library

Buyers flocked to Skyway Park, and before long the entire area was known simply as Skyway, occupying an island of unincorporated King County between Seattle and Renton. Skyway was a lively suburb, full of new residents, yet it still lacked one key service: a library. After the war, residents asked for, and received, bookmobile service from the King County Library System (KCLS). However, by 1953 a group of Skyway residents were convinced that the community needed more than a bookmobile -- it needed its own permanent library. On January 22, 1953, they formed the Skyway Branch Library Board, which sponsored a series of dances, shows, and raffles to raise money for rent and shelves. They entered into an agreement with KCLS to supply books and services and found a central location for a small library.

On March 14, 1953, the first Skyway Library held its opening celebration, although in a decidedly modest location: a back room of Kimball's Bakery at 12623 Renton Avenue. Still, it was a big improvement over the bookmobile. The program for the Open House noted that "the chief advantage is that the branch library is open three days a week for your use, whereas the bookmobile could provide service only once in three weeks" ("Open House Program"). Despite the modest setting, the Skyway Library had 2,000 volumes, and had access to 180,027 volumes in the full King County Library System. The program listed the Skyway Library's first librarian as Mrs. Donald Jones and the first president of the board as Christian Diede. More than 100 books were checked out on the first day.

The bakery room was never intended to be a permanent spot. The first move came on June 27, 1953, when the library moved to the nearby Angel Preschool Building. Then it moved again in late August 1953, to what was called "the old fire station." The minutes of one board meeting from that year reported that the board discussed "the possibilities of some day building our own library," but concluded that "it is a nice dream, but so far, that's all it is" ("Board Minutes").

Popular Community Center

Yet the board was able to haul in an old building that could be refurbished as a library. In August 1953, the board purchased a "double bachelor unit from the [Renton] Highlands" and made arrangements to have it moved to a lot in the heart of Skyway. This was a portable wartime housing unit, which the board picked up for only $550, including the cost of moving it. The Skyway Community Club loaned the board the entire sum. The structure arrived on its new site at 12621 E Renton Avenue -- not far from the original bakery location -- in late August 1953. It required a daunting amount of work to fix it up. The board and community pitched in to help. The local VFW branch donated 10 gallons of much-needed paint (interior sea foam green). Even the land that the building occupied was donated rent-free by John Angel (1896-1991), one of Skyway Park's original developers. After months of painting and hammering, the library moved into its new building on January 17, 1954.

The new Skyway Library was only 800 square feet, but it housed 3,636 volumes and became a popular community center. However, this largely improvised space needed work, as the Skyway Reporter newspaper noted in an "Open Letter to Skyway Area Citizens" in 1957: "Did you know that the King County Public Library supplies only the books? It is the community's responsibility to see that adequate quarters, properly heated and equipped, are provided. It is a sort of do-it-yourself arrangement. Up to the present time, Skyway has sadly neglected this responsibility" ("Open Letter ..."). The piece concluded with a plea for residents to contribute to a fundraising campaign to buy a new floor, new siding, and more bookshelves.

It took two more years, but by 1959 the board had raised enough money to give the library a new vinyl floor, a new ceiling, new light fixtures, new paint, and new shrubs. The ongoing project did not stop there. In 1963, a 300-square-foot addition was added to the building, expanding it to a total of 1,100 square feet. Because it was largely a community volunteer effort, the new addition cost only $900. Yet it provided enough new space and shelving to boost the number of volumes to 9,685.

By 1966, the community and KCLS concluded that Skyway needed more than a converted bachelor's quarters -- it needed a true library building. A KCLS facilities report said that the current building was "woefully inadequate and poorly located behind a row of commercial buildings" ("Library Building Program"). That year, KCLS included a new Skyway Library in its $6 million capital bond issue. Voters approved the bond issue with 63 percent in favor. It took several years for the plans to come together, but by 1968 KCLS and Bridges-Burke Architects in Seattle had completed the design for a 5,200-square-foot library at 7612 S 126th Street, not far from the old library. The new building would more than double the number of volumes available in the library and include a multipurpose meeting room.

Cultural Heart of Skyway

Ground was broken in May 1969 and construction continued into 1970. Once again the Skyway Library Association (as the board's organization was now called) pitched in to help. "It took a lot of people and a lot of blood, sweat and tears to arrive at this moment in the Skyway Library Association," noted a brief history of the association ("Skyway Library Association"). In February 1970, the association put the old building and its furnishings up for sale. The old library closed its doors the week of March 2, so that the books could be moved to the new library.

On March 8, 1970, the new Skyway Library was dedicated in a formal ceremony that included remarks from KCLS director Herbert F. Mutschler (1919-2001) and Washington State Librarian Maryan E. Reynolds (1913-2004). The new building, made of tan brick, was almost five times larger than the old one. It included an enclosed garden court and some of the latest library innovations, including phonograph listening tables. It also included a children's book area and a young adult area.

The new Skyway Library immediately became a popular community meeting place and the cultural heart of Skyway and surrounding neighborhoods Bryn Mawr, Lakeridge, Earlington, Campbell Hill, Panorama, Skycrest, and Hilltop. The library's circulation grew to 70,347 in 1982 and to 114,683 by 1989. Another successful KCLS bond issue in 1988 paid for an extensive remodeling in 1991. A computerized catalog was installed soon after.

Meanwhile, significant demographic changes had taken place in Skyway and surrounding communities. Its relatively low-cost housing attracted a number of Asian immigrants. Its African American community, always significant, continued to grow. In 1983, head librarian Myrle Dougherty said that she felt she "can truly erase racial lines" with her work at the library, by helping people of so many races ("Profile: Skyway Library"). In 1988, King County Council member Ron Sims (b. 1948) said he took pride in the racial and economic mix of the Skyway area. He said the population was about one-quarter minority -- African American and Asian -- and he called it a "model community in its diversity" (McNett).

Beacon on the Hill

When KCLS placed a $172 million bond issue before voters in 2004, it included plans for 15 new libraries -- including a new 8,000-square-foot Skyway Library. The bond measure passed, yet with so much work involved, the projects had to be spaced out over time. Skyway waited several more years before plans for its new library coalesced. In 2010, KCLS completed a Skyway Library Community Study to evaluate the community's needs and to help shape the project. The study noted that Skyway had become one of the county's most racially diverse areas. About 41 percent of the population was white, 25 percent African American, and 22 percent Asian American. The study also noted that teens were especially heavy users of the Skyway Library, partly because many teens lacked home internet service. The Skyway Library's circulation in 2011 was 142,129.

The architectural firm of Weinstein A+U designed a building with a sweeping angular design, a colorful cobalt-blue exterior, and large windows for natural lighting. At 8,000 square feet, it had much more space for books and other materials than the old library. It also had long banks of computers and a spacious community meeting room. It was built at 12601 76th Avenue South, only a stone's throw from the site of the existing library. Construction commenced in July 2014.

On the morning of January 23, 2016, a crowd estimated at around 1,000 gathered under umbrellas for the ribbon-cutting of the new $8.3 million Skyway Library. Frederick Gurney, the library's service manager, said the turnout "is an inspiration, quite honestly" (Green). King County Executive Dow Constantine (b. 1961) said that, "at its core, the library has not changed" -- it remained Skyway's place "to explore and build community" (Green). The event featured a ceremonial book-passing, from the old library, just down the street, to the new. A KCLS report said:

"The building is hard to miss. Given its striking blue exterior, the new library is proudly referred to as the 'beacon on the hill' and is a source of pride for the Skyway community. It is light, airy, energy-efficient, and features an impressive entrance made of teak wood siding from recycled shipping crates and an adjacent plaza that can be used for farmer's markets, festivals and other community events" ("Delivering ...," 2).

"One of the library's most unique features is a patron favorite and a tribute to the area's past Boeing residents and history: an 'airplane wing table' made from a 1969 Cessna 402A horizontal stabilizer, its polished rivets visible under a rectangular sheet of glass" ("Delivering ...," 20).

A stone and stainless steel artwork, Skystones, by Seattle artist Jenny Heishman, was installed outdoors on the library plaza. KCLS said the library was "designed to be a center of community learning and gathering for the Skyway and ... West Hill neighborhoods" ("Delivering ...," 20). The new building held 33,872 books -- nearly 10 times the number of books held in the original "bachelor's quarters" of 1954. People were soon flocking to the new blue "beacon." In the first six months of operation, the new Skyway Library logged a 77 percent increase in library card registrations.

Back in 1953, a member of the Skyway Branch Library Board had wistfully mused that building a new library was only "a nice dream" ("Board Minutes"). Six decades later, the dream had come true, several times over.


Sources:

Harold "Jiggs" Hoyt, The Story of Bryn Mawr, 1872-1986 (Snohomish: Snohomish Publishing Company, 1986); "$2,237,000 in Residences for Skyway Park," The Seattle Times, July 4, 1944, p. 11; "Important Announcement to Defense Workers!" (Nelse Mortensen & Company advertisement), The Seattle Times, September 24, 1944, p. 11; "500 New Homes in Skyway Park Open to Public," The Seattle Times, September 24, 1944, p. 11; "Skyway Library Community Study 2010," King County Library System (KCLS) website accessed December 1, 2016 (https://w3.kcls.org/community_studies/Skyway%20Library%20Community%20Study.pdf); "Delivering on a Promise to Voters: KCLS Capital Improvement Plan, 12-Year Report, September 2016," KLCS website accessed February 6, 2017 (https://w3.kcls.org/capital_bond/12%20Year%20Capital%20Bond%20Report.pdf); "Open House Program," March 14, 1953, historical collection, Skyway Library, Seattle, Washington; "Skyway Branch Library Board Minutes," June 30, 1953, historical collection, Skyway Library; "Open Letter to Skyway Area Citizens," Skyway Reporter, May 16, 1957, p. 1, clipping in historical collection, Skyway Library; "Library Building Program," undated KCLS report, ca. 1966, historical collection, Skyway Library; "Skyway Library Association," undated typescript, ca. 1969, historical collection, Skyway Library; "Profile: Skyway Library," KCLS Monthly Newsletter, September 1983, historical collection, Skyway Library; Jim McNett, "Skyway's Future Status Up in Air," Valley Daily News, March 20, 1988, p. 1, clipping in historical collection, Skyway Library; Marcus Harrison Green, "More Than a Thousand Brave Rain for Skyway Library's Grand Opening," South Seattle Emerald, January 24, 2016, https://southseattleemerald.com/2016/01/24/more-than-a-thousand-brave-rain-for-skyway-librarys-grand-opening/).


Related Topics:   Education | King County Library System

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