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Wilson Library

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Western Libraries
1928, Bebb and Gould; 1962–1963 addition, Paul Thiry; 1971–1973 addition, Fred Bassetti; 1994–1998 expansion, Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Partnership. 516 High St.
  • (Photograph by Lynette Felber)

Wilson Library, its original building designed by Bebb and Gould for the state normal school in Bellingham, was modeled after McKim, Mead and White’s Beaux-Arts design for the Boston Public Library. The building, which anchors the southern edge of the original quadrangle at what is today Western Washington University (WWU), also includes architectural features and materials designed to complement the Romanesque Revival style of the earlier Old Main building to its northeast.

Among Wilson Library’s more noticeable exterior features are the many-arched windows on its main facade. Those on the second story, which mark the grand reading room, are large and multi-paned with leaded glass; the smaller first-floor windows are grouped in threes and filled with stained glass. The library was renamed in 1964 to honor the school’s first professionally trained librarian, Mabel Zoe Wilson. A series of additions over time created more space, and the library complex today is known as Western Libraries.

The main floor of the original library building was organized around an elaborate entrance hall and a central staircase. The first or ground floor featured the checkout desk, the card catalog, the librarian’s office, and work rooms, in addition to a reserve book room to the left of the entrance and a collection of children’s literature to the right. The staircase led to a terrazzo-floored hall on the second floor, through which students and faculty entered a reading room with a thirty-foot ceilings, with decorated wooden box beams and transverse ribs featuring Egyptian and Native American motifs. The reading room, still serving its original function, runs the entire length of the second floor; it has capacity for 300 seated at long oak study tables and once held 25,000 books in built-in oak bookcases. Other books were accommodated nearby in multi-level book stacks. The library also had a large assembly room for instruction and conference rooms as well as workrooms for cataloging and book repair. The library was planned originally to accommodate stacks for 75,000 books, and a periodical storeroom with 1,000 titles.

Although the original exterior facade and much of the interior, including the reading room, has been preserved, Wilson Library has received multiple additions and renovations over the years by several notable architects. Each of the additions has revised—and obscured—earlier work. One of the earliest additions (1961–1962) was undertaken by Seattle modernist architect Paul Thiry, which created an odd and problematic juxtaposition of styles, layouts, and functions that was not universally well-received. Thiry’s addition was hidden by subsequent work by Fred Bassetti in 1971–1973.

Bassetti considered Bebb and Gould’s original design of the library to be “derivative,” but found it executed with “consummate skill and impeccable taste.” He could not say the same for Thiry’s modernist addition. For his addition, Bassetti essentially wrapped a new building around Thiry’s wings to the west and east, adding extensive walls of brick, a clay-tile roof, and concrete covered walkways around the east, west, and south that are more consistent with the original building by Bebb and Gould. In a subsequent expansion and remodeling (1994–1998), undertaken by the Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Partnership (ZGF), the library was connected to Haggard Hall to its south—an earlier, adjacent, International Style building also designed by Thiry and built originally for the sciences. Haggard Hall was extensively remodeled for the Western Libraries in 1999 and clad in brick, and a skybridge was constructed to connect it to the main library building. Little remains of the modernist additions by Thiry, and the library complex—assisted by the additions of Bassetti and ZGF—creates an impression that it has always been clad with traditional materials, respectful of Bebb and Gould original facade for Wilson Library.

Writing Credits

Lynette Felber
J. Philip Gruen
Robert R. Franklin



  • 1928

    Design and construction
  • 1962

  • 1971

    Renovation and cladding of 1963 addition
  • 1994

    Renovation of Haggard Hall for library and addition of skybridge

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Lynette Felber, "Wilson Library", [Bellingham, Washington], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—,

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