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Seattle Public Library, Magnolia Branch
Set on a slope at the corner of West Armour Street and 34th Avenue West, the Seattle Public Library Magnolia Branch stands as a remarkable example of Northwest Regional Modernism, one of the finest public works by the firm of Kirk, Wallace, McKinley and Associates (KWMA). This partnership, led by the architect Paul Hayden Kirk, developed a widely influential approach to residential and small-scale commercial design, emphasizing the structural and decorative use of wood, the Pacific Northwest’s staple product during the first half of the twentieth century. Most distinctively, KWMA developed new framing systems that exposed and highlighted roof supporting posts and beams, which, at the Magnolia Branch Library, yield a remarkable composition with complex spatial modulations. Originally 5,900 square feet in size, the library had an intentionally domestic character, in stark contrast to Seattle’s formal, Beaux-Arts Carnegie libraries built during a period of rapid branch library expansion between 1908 and 1921.
Seattle’s pre-World War I designs for branch libraries conformed to a set of architectural criteria approved by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, upholding contemporary notions of education’s seriousness and dignity. After World War II, a growing Seattle population required additional library branches, but bond issues for expansion failed in 1950 and 1952. Only in 1953–1954 did the Seattle City Council allocate funds for the system’s first new branches since 1921; Magnolia Branch Library was built during a second wave of branch construction that occurred between 1961 and 1966. Library administrators shaped postwar branch libraries to meet altered standards of consumer convenience, social informality, and simplified access to information.
In stark contrast to the monumental and symmetrical Carnegie libraries that towered above their sites, Kirk’s scheme for Magnolia was a ground-hugging plan devised in tandem with landscape architect Richard Haag to integrate the library with the surroundings. KWMA made the Magnolia Branch’s exterior more open, well-lit, and transparent to the street (much like a contemporary coffee shop or a shopping center), while the interiors were intentionally more domestic in nature. All corners of the Magnolia Branch Library were glazed. Echoing the preferences of the city librarian, architects of KWMA wrote that they wished to make the interiors more like familiar living rooms, more flexible and informal than Carnegie configurations, with open plans that reflected the informality of postwar tastes. The architects furnished the reading spaces with portable Nakashima work tables and reconfigurable chairs and sofas. Clad in cedar shingles and emphatically revealing its post-and-beam structure, the Magnolia Branch Library took most of its styling cues from Kirk’s residential designs.
KWMA's Magnolia Branch Library floorplan had a decidedly modernist character, lacking both symmetry and rigidity. One story in height (supplemented by a basement storage area) and laid out on a ten-foot module, public service areas occupied a single rectangular space with the long axis oriented north-south, filling the eastern three-quarters of the building. The library was entered not from a central door on the front (east) side, but through a glass door on the southwest corner nearest to parking. Walled off from the public space, a line of staff rooms—a lounge, lavatories, offices, and a processing space—filled the library’s remaining western quarter. The architects preserved an unbroken flow of space in public areas while controlling noises emanating from staff areas. Four flat-roofed clerestories inserted at regular intervals along the north-south axis lit a trio of public service zones—a children’s room on the south, an adult reading/reference space to the north, and a circulation desk area in the middle. The central check-out zone, articulated by an H-shaped partition, served as a noise buffer between reading areas for adults and children. Seven projecting bays accommodated books stacks for the two areas, each with an alcove providing insulated space for readers browsing the shelves. Kirk favored clerestories in his designs to admit much-needed light to counteract Seattle’s often cloudy conditions, to modulate space for functional zone differentiation, and to provide an expressive opportunity to detail wooden post-and-beam connections.
What set the Magnolia Branch Library apart was its complex roof framing plan. Kirk layered three levels of post-and-beam framing to support the roof; he used “bypass framing” on each of the three levels to provide space for light to enter the building via clerestories. Bypass framing consisted of paired ceiling joists bolted onto either side of a supporting post. This straightforward but elegant solution simplified the construction process while producing an elegant rhythm of paired rafter tails on the exterior. The bypass method of construction became a signature element for Kirk, and would be emulated for years by younger architects in the Puget Sound region. The Magnolia Branch Library’s three-level stacking of members reflected Kirk’s experimentation with roof framing during the 1960s.
KWMA’s design quickly gained popular and professional accolades. It won an Award of Merit from the Seattle Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in 1965, and garnered the First Honor Award in the AIA American Library Association’s third annual Library Award Program in 1966. In March 2001, the Seattle Landmarks Board voted to add the Magnolia Branch Library to the city’s list of historic landmarks.
In 1998, Seattle citizens passed the “Libraries for All” Bond Issue, providing an unprecedented $196.4 million to refurbish the entire Seattle Public Library system. The Magnolia Branch Library, the last to be remodeled, received $4.3 million to upgrade electrical, communications, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems; to update the circulation desk and staff work areas; and to add energy-efficient glass. Book and media collections were also enhanced. In 2007, Snyder Hartung Kane Strauss Architects (SHKS), in collaboration with Graham Contracting Ltd., won a competition to design a large community meeting space on the west side of the library, adding 1,443 square feet to the original 6,356-square-foot building. The facility reopened in July 2008.
“City of Seattle, Public Library (SPL), Branch #3, Magnolia, Seattle, WA.” Pacific Coast Architecture Database (PCAD). Accessed December 26, 2015. http://pcad.lib.washington.edu/.
“Issaquah Company to Build Library.” Seattle Times, November 22, 1963.
“Magnolia Library Architect Chosen.” Seattle Times, April 10, 1962.
“Magnolia Library Wins Award.” Seattle Times, April 17, 1966.
McCarthy, Francis Joseph. “City-county library in a business district.” Architectural Record142, no. 3 (September 1967): 177-184.
Michelson, Alan. “Marketing the Neighborhood’s Living Room: A Study of Seattle’s Magnolia Branch Library.” Column 521 (Autumn 2007): 30-39.
Strauss, David. “Modern Continuity: Seattle's Magnolia Branch Library Renovation and Addition.” APT Bulletin42, nos. 2-3 (2011): 15-20.
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