When she was a little girl, Anne Walter remembers climbing the 16 steps leading to the huge front doors of the Heath Branch of the Spokane Public Library at 525 E. Mission Ave.
“It was three blocks from the house where I grew up,” she said, “and I would walk to the library all the time. The sheer size of it, the stone steps. I felt so important going up them and come out with an armful of books. And the books were free! How wonderful that when I was done reading them I could come back for more.”
The joy of those experiences has remained with Walter, a counselor at Franklin Elementary School now serving her second term on the Spokane Library board of trustees. The building holds good memories for many others as well, including Paula Fletcher, who also grew up in the neighborhood and recalls with fondness the kind voice of the soft-spoken librarian in the 1960s, and walking through those big doors and turning left to enter the wonderful room that housed the children’s collection.
The Heath Branch is one of three library branches built with a grant from the Carnegie Foundation in 1914. It cost $35,000 and remained open until 1983. Even after it no longer served as a public library, it functioned as a home for the bookmobile and outreach program. Since 2009 it has been home to the Magnuson Hotels group.
Louis Zittel served as the architect for the building. He is also noted for his design of Spokane’s old city hall, the Mount St. Michael Mission, St. Aloysius Church, Showalter Hall at Eastern Washington University and many more historic structures. Land for the project was donated by Sylvester Heath, whose first home was directly across the street on the site where St. Aloysius School was later built. One of Spokane’s founding fathers, Heath was Spokane’s third postmaster, proprietor of a book and stationery store (which later evolved into J.W. Graham and Co. stationers) and the developer of a large section of land on the north side of the Spokane River now known as the Logan Neighborhood.
Along with its sister branches (East Side and North Monroe), the Heath Branch is on both the National and Spokane registers of historic places.
The construction is typical of those built in the Carnegie tradition. It is a large one-and-a-half-story brick building with a daylight basement and features a façade with three bays, a central projecting pavilion and huge staircase. There is much terra cotta on the exterior, which probably is its most notable feature. Each corner piece is terra cotta and every window is surrounded by it, giving the overall effect that of a checkerboard complexity.
The library system’s two bookmobiles were housed at the Heath Branch in the 1950s. In the 1960s the lower (street) level was remodeled to better service the bookmobiles, and by the 1970s one bookmobile was retired and replaced with a 3/4-ton van as part of an outreach service that allowed mobile carts to be trans ported to and taken into nursing homes and other locations where patrons had difficulty going outside to the bookmobile.
“I remember the bookmobile parked by the east side door and the outreach vehicle by the west side door, and we would load them appropriately to serve our patrons,” remembered Doug Roberts, now a media specialist in the reference department at the downtown library. It was also in the mid-1970s that the front entrance on Mission was closed and patrons entered the library from the street-level Standard Street side of the building, omitting the need for climbing the steps to the main entrance.
Roberts recalls also that in the 1970s, courtesy of a grant, the library was home to a toy library. Groups could check out the assorted wooden toy tractors and trucks and a variety of games, a popular service for young people.
Though the building has a new life now, very specific books from this neighborhood library still stand out in the memories of those who got their first library card there and nourished their love of reading while sitting in chairs by the tall book shelves. Walter easily gives a list of her favorites, running from simple picture books to “Harriet the Spy,” “Nancy Drew,” “Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret” and then her Stephen King phase. Paula Fletcher goes back quickly to when she was 6 and “A Fly Went By.”
Library memories run deep.