Photo courtesy Whatcom Museum Photo Archives

 

 


100 Years of History

of the Fairhaven Carnegie Library


The following history was written by Jeff Jewell, Photo Historian for the Whatcom Museum. The article appeared in the 2004 Whatcom Historical Society Journal to honor the 100th anniversary of the opening of the library.

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The Bellingham Reveille declared in October 1904 that the new Fairhaven Public Library was a "magnificent monument to culture and education." It’s still an accurate description, more than a century later, of the beloved library at 1117 12th St.

In retrospect, 1904 was no time to be building a library here. The separate towns of Whatcom and Fairhaven had recently voted to become one city, the new municipality of Bellingham. A contractor to dig the library’s basement, A. C. Goerig, of Everett, was announced Dec. 14, 1903, at the next-to-last meeting of the soon-to-be retired Fairhaven City Council. Further progress on the library, however, was plagued by bureaucratic delays and work stoppages as Bellingham's fledgling government faced a multitude of more pressing issues from renaming streets to adoption of a city charter.

As a result, the Fairhaven Library wasn't dedicated until Dec. 20, 1904, two days shy of a full year since the "first sod was turned by Mrs. J. B. McMillan" on Dec. 22, 1903. Even the dedication ceremony had been postponed nearly a month while craftsmen hurried to finish the elaborate interior woodwork (much of that woodwork was later removed from the first floor by an unfortunate remodel in the mid-1970s).

At the dedication there were numerous songs and speeches for a crowd of "fully 400 people." Mayor Jerome W. Romaine accepted the building on behalf of the new First-class City of Bellingham. Previous mayor (of interim Second-class Bellingham) Alfred L. Black "congratulated himself" for having created the committee that began the lengthy acquisition process. Dr. Edward T. Mathes, president of the Bellingham State Normal School, discussed "The Author and His Book," and William J. Hughes, City Superintendent of Schools, elaborated on the positive "Relation of the Public Library to the Public Schools."

Designed by the architectural firm Elliott & West, of Seattle, the library has a basement of native Chuckanut sandstone with a superstructure of brick. It turned out to be poor-quality porous brick that absorbed rain like a slow sponge, posing a "constant danger of having the books, furniture and floors damaged by moisture." The remedy, in early 1910, was to coat three sides of the library with cement (the back is still brick-faced), which had the additional benefit of accentuating the building's Mission-style architecture.

Andrew Carnegie, the great library sponsor, bestowed the $12,500 necessary to erect the structure, yet it was Fairhaven's own philanthropic capitalist, Charles X. Larrabee, who offered to donate a site, which was the major pre-condition to qualifying for Mr. Carnegie's gift. Various locations were considered, most notably up the hill on 14th St., but the 12th and Columbia site was the one "the ladies of the [library] committee most desired." However, that spot included property not owned by C. X. Larrabee. As recounted in the Bellingham Herald, Dec. 17, 1904, Larrabee "purchased for cash, at many times its real value, two lots adjoining others already held by him and deeded for library purposes the four lots which form the present site."

The Larrabee donation came with its own provision: the library must have a room where men could read "in their working clothes." The ‘working men's reading room’ was located in the basement and entered by a door under the front stairs to avoid where "ladies might be gathered." C. X. hoped this room would provide an after work alternative to Fairhaven’s abundant saloons.

Larrabee's alcoholic father had deserted his family when Charles was a boy, leaving the son with a resolute stance against the evils of liquor. C. X.'s public generosity was defined by this sober purpose, from his donating land for Fairhaven churches to, in the last year of his life, financing the building of Bellingham's YWCA on Forest St.

The first books accepted by the board for use in the Fairhaven Library were a "handsome set" of the complete works of Frances E. Willard. Donated by the Woman's Christian Temperance Union in Dec. 1903, the suffragist and temperance leader's volumes were to permanently "occupy a prominent place in the library."

Entering the library's original first floor layout, the circulation desk was at the center with the "ladies' reception room" to the left and the main reading room on the right. Most of the books were safely behind the desk in the "book room." On the top floor, "with an artistic stairway leading to it," was an auditorium for community gatherings.

Laura C. Shaw was the Fairhaven Library's first librarian, the same position she'd held since 1902 when the library was a reading room in the Mason Block. In 1904, Shaw was described by Mrs. S. E. Martin, of the Library Board, as possessing "kindness of heart," yet certainly up to the task when "strict discipline must be observed and silence at whatever cost maintained."