The True University
A History of the Western Washington University Library1899-1998
By Marian Alexander
With the arrival of President Charles H. Fisher in July 1923, following the brief tenure of Dr. Dwight B. Waldo, Miss Wilson’s case for a new library facility gained an important and effective adherent. On February 18, 1924, the Board authorized Fisher "to secure the services of a competent architect to plan the Normal School for its growth for the next twenty-five years."
Fisher retained the Seattle architectural firm of Bebb & Gould, responsible for several recent buildings at the University of Washington, most notably the spectacular, Gothic-style Suzzallo Library. By April, the architects had submitted their "General Plan Showing Present Conditions and Future Extensions" of the "Washington State Normal School." A prominent feature of the plan was the quadrangle created by the existing main building/annex complex, Edens Hall to the north, a proposed auditorium building on the Bay side, and a new library at the south end.
On December 1, 1924, the Board unanimously agreed to the final adoption of the plan. However, due to prevailing political and economic uncertainties, it decided that funding would be sought for only one building at a time and that the first such request would be "for an appropriation for the erection of a library." As preliminary plans were needed in order to estimate costs, the Board unanimously agreed to the further employment of Bebb & Gould as architects of the library, conditioned upon actual approval of a suitable appropriation of funds in the upcoming legislative session.
The preliminary plan produced an estimate of $250,000, which was requested in the legislative session of January 1925. The effort was unsuccessful, although $30,000 was appropriated for the purchase of land for a library building. And, as President Fisher reported to the Board on February 23, 1925, even this partial victory was conditional. Governor Roland H. Hartley, an ardent proponent of tax reduction as well as higher education reform, preferred that this money not be spent "until his proposed survey of the state institutions showed that this expenditure would be justified."
Undaunted, President Fisher persisted. At the Board meeting on March 17, 1925, he "expressed the opinion that in view of the special session of the Legislature in November, that it was not too early for the Board of Trustees to take a position regarding a request for a library building." The Board agreed "that the same request for $250,000 for a library building should be made at the special session," and went on record as standing behind Bebb & Gould’s preliminary plan.
There was strong support for the project among local legislators. "I favor an appropriation for a new library at the Normal School," declared Whatcom County Senator E. J. Cleary, newly elected president pro-tem of the Senate, in The Weekly Messenger of January 15. "We have there one of the finest libraries in the country and no place to house it." The school was given even more reason to hope when the Governor himself made a visit to the campus that summer. He pronounced himself very favorably impressed, The Weekly Messenger reported with some relief on July 3, and "spoke highly of this Normal."
In his message to the special session called for November 9, 1925, the Governor specifically exempted the Normal from his general curtailment on appropriations to the colleges. "I further recommend," he instructed, "that there be no general fund appropriations for new buildings, except for a library at the Bellingham State Normal." He also approved at long last the regular session’s appropriation of $30,000 for the purchase of land for the new structure. President Fisher was cautiously optimistic, although in The Weekly Messenger of December 18, he did express concern that the full amount of $250,000 might not be obtained. In the end, Governor Hartley’s good will proved transitory, for on December 24, he vetoed the entire general fund appropriation for the higher education institutions, including the appropriation for the Normal School library.
Happily, on January 6, 1926, the legislature overrode the veto. On January 21, President Fisher was able to inform the Board that the supplementary appropriations bill provided $180,000 "for the main unit of a library building and equipment." Although short of the full amount requested, there was an "understanding," he asserted, between himself and the legislature "that additional appropriation is to be made to complete the building." All in all, the news was sufficiently positive that the Board agreed that the President should proceed to ascertain the prices acceptable to the owners of nearby properties desired as the site of the new library.
At its meeting on February 4, 1926, the Board resolved to acquire "as part of the grounds for said Normal School and specifically for a library site," a group of lots lying about 200 yards to the south and west of the Training School annex, all located in Block 2 of the George A. Jenkins Addition to Whatcom. The matter proceeded slowly, as court action was necessary to effect the purchase and condemnation of some of the lots. One owner, Charles A. Heberden, "insisted he should have $15,000 for his property" which the Board felt was "altogether too high." The case proceeded to trial in the Superior Court of Whatcom County, where Judge E. E. Hardin awarded Mr. Heberden $14,000. By April 1, however, the land purchases were completed. On June 18, The Weekly Messenger reported that the preliminary work of clearing and grading of the site was accomplished.
Further progress was impossible, however, as the Board had been told on April 22 that Governor Hartley deemed that enactment of the $180,000 appropriation for the Normal library building was "irregular." The impasse was not bridged until late Fall, when the Governor stated to the Board on November 30 that since "there had been a Supreme Court decision affecting the supplemental appropriations of the special session of 1925, the supplemental appropriations for the Bellingham State Normal School were now available." Immediately, the Board resolved "that Bebb & Gould, architects, should proceed at once to draw up working plans for the Library building."
Bebb & Gould’s library
On December 31, 1926, the Board entered into an Agreement with Charles H. Bebb and Carl F. Gould for full professional services "to erect a library building on the Normal School Campus in Bellingham." F. Stanley Piper, a Bellingham architect, was contracted to be the local supervisor of the work. Construction was expected to start by February 1927, although the timing was dependent on the construction of a new street, Cedar Street, without which the library project could not proceed. By December 10, excavation of the site was underway and on January 7, 1927, The Weekly Messenger reported that construction would start within three or four weeks,
The redbrick library structure envisioned by Bebb & Gould was intended to complement the Romanesque Revival-style main building in overall appearance. But the architects, plainly evoking McKim, Mead, and White’s italianate Boston Public Library of 1888, introduced Renaissance arches and columns at the first floor level. With a small, slightly projecting main entry, the building’s chief exterior feature would be large, arched windows placed high on the second level to both fully capture indirect light and provide extensive area for wrought iron and stained glass ornamentation. The elegant colonnades originally depicted at each end of the structure were never built.
The architect planned an interior space organized on the main floor around a decorated entrance hall and grand central staircase. The stairs would lead up to the terrazzo-floored "delivery hall" outside the splendid, high-ceiling reading room running the entire length of the second floor. This impressive space would accommodate 300 readers and 20,000 books. Overall capacity of the building would be 100,000 volumes with seating for 500, affording ample space for collections, library users, and staff for at least the next twenty-five years. Moreover, it was to be the first completely fireproof building constructed on the campus.
President Fisher’s "understanding" with the legislature that it would produce additional funds for the project finally bore fruit in March 1927. An appropriation of $80,000 was made "for the completion of Library Building and equipment," bringing the total amount appropriated to $260,000. In addition, $2,400 was allocated to cover deficits in the purchase of land for the library site. A confident President declared in The Weekly Messenger of March 18 that "the building should be finished and ready for occupancy by January 1, 1928."
On April 21, 1927, the Board awarded the major contracts for construction and fittings of the new library, selecting C. F. Martin of Seattle as the general contractor. Successful local contractors included A. J. Blythe for plumbing and F. M. Haskell for heating and ventilation. The total amount awarded, $188,746, was much lower than expected, according to The Weekly Messenger of April 29. The Board immediately called on Mr. Martin to advise on the possible use of "common brick" manufactured by the Monroe Reformatory, to which he saw no objection. On May 6, 1927, The Weekly Messenger included a photo of the ritual removal of the "first scoopful of dirt."
Whether Mabel Zoe Wilson worked directly with the architects is not known, but the final layout of services and collections surely reflected her wishes. In a contribution to The Weekly Messenger of August 12, 1927, titled "Visiting the New Library with Miss Wilson," she offered "a little tour, using our imaginations to see things as they will look when finished." She describes the plan of the first floor, with the Reserve Book room immediately to the left of the entrance, and the Library of Children’s Literature to the right. Beyond these will be found a study room for the faculty, student-teachers, and pupils of the training school, a picture library, "an exhibition of text books," and a separate reading room "equipped especially for faculty." From this area, a short corridor will lead to the book stacks in the southeast corner of the building, comprising "four steel tiers, each capable of holding 32,000 volumes."
Ascending to the second floor, the visitor will enter the "main delivery hall" featuring high on the south wall, "one of the most beautiful windows in the whole Northwest." To the right will be found the main charging desk and directly opposite, the card catalog, fronting a compact arrangement of offices, including the Librarian’s office, and workrooms. But, "we delay no longer," she leads on, "and enter the main reading room. It is forty-two by one hundred fifty feet, or as large as the old main library plus the hallway." The ceiling is more than thirty feet high and "richly decorated with colorful designs and with cross beams."
The colors, Miss Wilson notes, "were adopted because of their restfulness and quiet conduciveness for study." The built-in oak bookcases here contain about 25,000 volumes and "it is praiseworthy to note that the books themselves are, after all, the most decorative effect of this room." The new library, she concludes, "is the student’s workshop. With these new facilities of beauty and utility it is hoped that students may double and magnify their creative work."
On August 25, 1927, Board chairman W. D. Kirkpatrick lay the cornerstone of the new building in a small ceremony featuring an address by George Allez, former student body president and student employee of the library. By the start of the 1927/28 school year, construction was far enough along to allow President Fisher to confidently declare, in The Weekly Messenger of October 7, that the library would be "as fine and finer than any normal school library in the United States." On December 8, the Board awarded contracts for furniture, cabinetwork, painting, metal book stacks, and lighting fixtures.
In February 1928, Miss Wilson and her staff were reported to be completing an inventory of the library’s collections in preparation for the transfer to the new building. This activity would also "determine the losses suffered during the twenty five years of its operation years" in order to judge whether to retain the policy of open shelves. The trend, according to the Librarian, "is toward closed shelves because of lack of co-operation on the parts of the users of the libraries. This inventory will show the extent of co-operation we have received from the students over this period of time."
"Exquisitely pleasing to the eye"
Plans were made for the dedication of the new library in early June. At the Board meeting of March 16, President Fisher reported that he had invited James I. Wyer, Director of the New York State Library, to provide the dedication address. Dr. Wyer had been director of the New York State Library School when Mabel Zoe Wilson obtained her B.L.S. there in 1909.
In preparation for the move from the old library, The Weekly Messenger of May 25 reported, no books were permitted to circulate after May 22. The students, according to the reminiscence of an alumna who took part, accomplished at least part of the actual move. Miss Wilson, she recalled, "marshaled the class of ’28 in to a single file and kept us in our positions in line while we carried books from the top floor of the right wing of the main building down and across to the new library, placing the books on the shelves in correct order. We took pride in staying in line and placing the books where she wanted them."
The dedication ceremony was held on June 5, 1928, despite the presence of some exterior scaffolding and the lack of much of the interior woodwork, as well as incomplete painting and floor polishing. Governor Roland H. Hartley was in attendance. The architects, in officially presenting the building to the Board of Trustees, noted that "it has been the objective of those primarily responsible for this structure that the entire building and every element entering into it should be a combination of beauty and utility, the one without the other would be a building without meaning and without character." The Board of the Normal, they continued, "has given to the State a Library Building in which its citizens may take justifiable pride, expressing and giving evidence of the intelligence, refinement and foresight of a progressive community unafraid of the criticisms of future generations." Dr. Wyer, in his address "Books Versus Battles," declared that the library stood "pre-eminently as a monument to the school’s veteran librarian, Miss Mabel Zoe Wilson."
Featuring a full program of prayers, speeches, and music, the ceremony concluded with an "inspection of the library building by students, faculty and guests, followed by a reception." A second open house and reception was offered to the public in the evening. Of the affair, the architect Carl Gould noted in his personal diary, "we lined up in the Main reading room to receive congratulations of a large crowd assembled from the entire countryside. The evening sun streamed across the floor & through the large windows. Splendid clouds could be seen ascending. All profuse in praise and no indication of any disapproval."
"The building is not only exquisitely pleasing to the eye in structural and artistic effects," declared The Washington Education Journal, "but manifests painstaking thought on every detail for convenience and serviceableness." The library’s beauty was so great, effused The Washingtonian, "and in such perfect conformity with its setting and future proposals, that authorities feel there is no finer public building in Washington, outside of Olympia." The reading room was a marvel. "Following the walls in an unbroken line, except for the doors on one side, are 20,000 books. Lifting the eye to the ceiling, one receives a delightful surprise in a color scheme that has taken into account the decorative aspirations of Egyptian and American Indian artists. Brilliant colors have touched the beams and the intervening spaces. In each of the large windows is a single colored panel modeled after the Aztecs. Such is the room that houses twenty-five times as many volumes as the Normal possessed shortly before Miss Wilson began."
Despite the seemingly successful conclusion of the project, President Fisher continued to closely monitor the new library’s construction details and furnishings. From the beginning, he corresponded actively with the architects on an array of issues, including the quality of the foundations, the relative merits of different types of telephone systems, and the substitution of brass for iron pipe. In September 1928, he was "very upset," Carl Gould wrote to the stonework contractor, about the outcome of a patching job on the main staircase. Shortly thereafter, he hastened to inform Charles Bebb of a crack he had discovered in the terrazzo floor in the second floor delivery hall.
In March 1929, President Fisher supervised the return of more than a hundred chairs whose finish, he felt, was "out of order," and causing the wood of the seats to split. In 1931, there was a round of correspondence aimed at discovering a chemical solution capable of removing ink stains from the stonework. More seriously, by 1932 he was repeatedly consulting with the architects concerning "penetration of the brickwork during driving rains," especially on the south side of the building, a problem that quickly became intransigent and would only be resolved by frequent application of waterproofing solutions.