Photo by Jerry Gay
Karoline Morrison, who has owned the Ballard Free Carnegie Library since 1977, objects to the recent Historic Landmark status nomination -- because she thinks it can't survive with the restrictions, and because she believes the building is already clearly a "historic landmark."

Andrew Carnegie's Library and me

By Karoline Morrison, owner of the Ballard Free Carnegie Library building

I never met the man, but he saved my life in a way.

My shop inside the Carnegie Library Building in Ballard sustained me through very hard times. Today it is home to my tenants -- hard-working merchants who are trying to make a living.

Ironically, the recent nomination of the building to city landmark status may threaten the vitality of a building I have preserved and protected since I purchased it in 1977. I write to tell my story as I request that my Carnegie building be removed from landmark consideration, because it will hinder the dynamic preservation of the building that is already in place and has been since 1977.

In the early sixties, after several years in Hollywood, I returned home to Seattle with great hopes for the future. I decided: no more being a showgirl, cigarette girl and actress. I would be my own boss by opening a shop. And what would I sell? Antiques, of course. They were all the rage then -- even though I was a drama major from the University of Washington and knew nothing about antiques. Since I had no money, I would sell on consignment; and to get started, I opened a hole-in-the-wall in the Greenwood District.

One evening I was in Ballard, headed for the Majestic Bay Theatre on Market Street, when I saw this elegant building and instantly fell in love with it. It said “Carnegie Free Public Library,” and on the lawn there was a realtor's sign with a phone number. I sat in the movie house with no idea what the movie was about. All I could think of was that building and the multitude of shelves inside, perfect for holding my antiques.

The next day I called the realtor, who sent me a key so I could look around. He told me that, in 1963, a former Ballard businessman named Morris Siegel bought the building at a City of Seattle auction. He was the only bidder and he got it for just $65,000.

I offered to rent it for $150 per month and agreed to move out when he was ready to tear it down. Mr. Siegel seemed pleased with my plan to sell antiques there. I named my shop “Pandora's Castle” and was his tenant for thirteen years, until Mr. Siegel passed away. By then, my love affair with the building was so deep that my husband and I found a way to purchase the building. We vowed it would never be torn down and put covenants to that effect in our wills.

During my years as a tenant and owner, I took scrupulous care of the building. It was obvious how little the city of Seattle had been able to invest in it. It was like an unwanted stepchild from the time the city inherited it with the 1907 annexation of Ballard. It served as a library until 1963. During the campaign to pass an initiative for a new Ballard library branch, it was referred to as the "eyesore of Market Street” and a structure that would not withstand even the slightest earthquake. Ironically, about a year after I opened up my shop, the building survived the severe 1965 earthquake that did extensive damage in other parts of Ballard. There have been other earthquakes since, yet the old library still stands.

When we purchased the building, it was in terrible condition, and so we have spent mightily to restore and maintain it. First off, the city had failed to drain the water expansion tank that was part of the heating system located at the top of the building. One day it burst and severely damaged walls and flooring on the main floor. We paid for the extensive repair work. Then the stairs to the basement collapsed due to moisture because of no heat in that area, so we paid for new stairs. We installed a new gas furnace. And when I discovered there were fireplaces in the side reading rooms, I had the shelving removed that hid them and had them fully restored, as I did the spectacular trademark spider web windows that everyone loves. Because the original lighting was by gas light, we had to do extensive rewiring to install electrical outlets and other upgrades. There was only one restroom in the building. Now there are five.

When the time came to close my antiques shop so I could be with my toddler daughter, I was very particular about the tenants I leased the spaces to. I informed them of the preciousness of the structure and its history, and they have respected that. However, to keep the building alive with tenants who give access to this historic place through their businesses, I have allowed my tenants to make slight modifications that their specialties required or that esthetically would enhance their businesses. I have never allowed structural changes. Even the nomination report from the Landmarks Board states that “. . . little change has occurred to the building other than age-associated deterioration.” And where non-structural historical elements are concerned, such as the old book shelves, the old interior windows, the circulation desk and the old radiators, all have been saved and are stored in the building basement.

Thus, the concerns that have been raised by some individuals about the fate of this historic building are unfounded and do not require supervision by an outside party. Some worry that wall paint colors have been changed in the various spaces and that the interior windows of the old library have been removed. These are decorative issues that can be reverted easily, if necessary. Some say the building should be turned back into a library. The building could be turned back into a library instantly, but the realities of public funding do not make that a viable option. Maintaining and preserving the historic integrity of the property has required steady revenue from merchant rentals. And to obtain and retain these tenants, we owners must be flexible and allow cosmetic changes to be made swiftly. Neither the tenant nor the building owner can afford to be detained by the processes and hearings required by landmark status. Without flexibility and timeliness in getting tenants set up for business, the building faces a future of vacancies instead of the access to a historic place that a building filled with merchants now gives the public. Without this revenue the building would have been torn down long ago.

I am likewise disturbed by assumptions made in the August 31 feature in the Ballard News-Tribune article, suggesting that, at any moment, some structural change could take place and violate the integrity of the architecture. My personal dedication to historic preservation in all my community and business activities, as well as the public record showing no such rash changes have ever taken place, refute this ominous possibility.

The article also stated that this is the second time the building has been nominated, the first time being in 1977, when a hearing never took place. On neither occasion did we owners receive official written notice of the nomination to landmark status. We only received copies of letters the Landmarks Board sent to the nominator regarding the current nomination.

Thus I make this request of the City of Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board: I thank you for considering our building for landmark status, but it is not needed and we do not desire it. The Carnegie Building is preserved and intact. It is alive with merchants today who contribute to the vitality of the streets of Ballard, most recently the popular new pub “Kangaroo and Kiwi.” The future of life inside the building will be greatly hindered by the requirements of landmark status that would diminish the flexibility through which tenants can settle in and launch their businesses in a timely way.

The historic building that was once considered an eyesore and that everyone thought would be torn down is still standing. Ironically, while it still stands, the “new” library that replaced it in the sixties is about to be torn down and replaced. I think my family and I have proved to be a good stewards and that Mr. Carnegie would be as proud of me as I am of his building. I am certain that, as a good businessman, he would agree that we do not need landmark status. We already have it.

Karoline Morrison is an antiques collector and appraiser, a founding member of the Ethnic Heritage Council of the Pacific Northwest and of the Nordic Heritage Museum in Ballard. She is author of the memoir Twilight of the Blondes (Tigress Publishing, 2011), describing her life-changing experiences in Hollywood and Seattle during the 50s and early 60s, including the 1962 World’s Fair, where she was a showgirl.

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