Central Library history

There has been a library in downtown Portland for almost as long as Portland has been a city. In 1864, just 13 years after the city was incorporated, a group of businessmen established The Library Association of Portland and leased space on the second story of Benjamin Stark’s building, on the corner of First and Stark Streets. The Association operated as a subscription library: Members paid an initiation fee of $5 and quarterly dues of $3. Five years later, thanks to a $1/year rent from William Ladd, member of the Board of Directors, the Association moved across Stark Street to the second floor of the Ladd & Tilton Bank. It remained there for 24 years.

In the 1880s, the Association expressed its determination to have a building of its own, and in 1893, the doors of the Stark Street Library (between Seventh [now Broadway] and Park Streets) opened to Association subscribers. The two-story building housed the library on the ground floor and the Portland Art Association on the second.

In 1890, another group of Portland citizens decided to open the Free Reading Room and Library Association. This organization, which eventually renamed itself the Portland Public Library and was housed at City Hall, operated for a little over 10 years before merging with the Library Association.

In 1900, the Library Association received a mission-altering bequest from a Portland businessman, John Wilson. Wilson left the Association his personal collection of more than 8,000 volumes, with the stipulation that the books be made available free to the public. Recognizing that a library open to the public needed public support, he also bequeathed $2,500 in gold coin. The Association’s board quickly agreed to meet Wilson’s stipulation, negotiated a contract with the City of Portland for taxpayer support, hired a top-notch Head Librarian (the first professionally trained and the first woman to hold the position) in Mary Frances Isom, welcomed the staff and collections of the Portland Public Library, and opened the doors of the Stark Street Library to the public on March 10, 1902.

Very quickly, the Association realized the current library would soon be too small for the growing city and that the tax provided by the City of Portland would not be sufficient. Miss Isom turned to Multnomah County for support, beginning more than a century of partnership. And she began planning for the downtown library’s next phase: Design and construction of a new Central Library.

Central Library nears completion in 1913.
In 1911, Isom and her board purchased the block bordered by 10th and 11th Avenues and Yamhill and Taylor Streets in what was at that time the outskirts of downtown Portland, for $342,000. They hired Portland architect, Albert E. Doyle from the firm Doyle, Patterson & Beach to design the new building. In September 1913, Central Library was ready. The building was ceremonially dedicated on September 6. The design, construction and furnishings cost $480,000.

According to The Oregonian from September 7, 1913, "Hundreds of visitors flocked to the building, filling the halls, and went to and fro in the great rooms with a hint of the elated swagger that is a symptom of the 'joy of possession.'"

In his remarks at the dedication, Doyle noted, "A library building should be planned for library work." He went on to describe the building as "a librarian’s library," one with "a certain refined dignity." Mary Frances Isom understood Central needed to be more than a place for librarians: "… this public library will fail to keep faith with our citizens unless it becomes the center of the civic, the intellectual, the educational life of city and county. [italics ours]" Miss Isom succeeded in making that connection, and the library leaders who came after her have made it their primary mission as well.

Help from a librarian, 1960s.
Central Library’s exterior changed little in the past 100 years, and in 1979 the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The interior has undergone several dramatic changes, most recently between 1994 and 1997. In the early 1990s, a structural analysis demonstrated a serious deficiency in the support partitions, requiring installation of scaffolding to protect patrons and staff from falling masonry. The analysis determined that the library would be seriously damaged in a major earthquake. Prior to this discovery, though, the library leadership was already studying how Central could be renovated and adapted to the computer age. The structural analysis provided the impetus to move forward with a comprehensive renovation.

Caption: Central Library renovation (1994-1997)
Supported by a $24.5-million bond issue, as well as funds contributed by private donors through The Library Foundation, the project began in late 1994, when Central Library was closed and completely emptied. A temporary home, called TransCentral, was opened in an office building on SW Columbia Street, between 4th and 5th avenues. Just like they did in 1913 – when the library moved from Stark Street to 10th Avenue – Central’s patrons helped move the books by checking them out at Central, hopping on a TriMet bus that headed to TransCentral, and checking them back in.

After more than two years of construction, Central Library opened again on April 8, 1997. Not only were the structural and technological issues addressed and corrected, but many of the original Georgian Revival architectural and design flourishes were beautifully restored to their early 20th century glory. Joining these were fine examples of contemporary art: The tree in the Children’s Library (Preserving a Memory), the black granite grand staircase (Garden Stair), and the massive light fixture in the second floor (Solar Wreath).

Read more about the history and renovation of Central Library in Richard E. Ritz’s Central Library: Portland’s Crown Jewel.

Fact Sheet

  • Area: 125,000 square feet
  • Book capacity: 725,000
  • Original architect: Doyle, Patterson & Beach
  • Renovation architect: Fletcher Farr Ayotte with McMath Dortignac (principal George McMath is a grandson of A.E. Doyle)
  • Renovation contractor: Hoffman Construction Co.
  • First librarian: Mary Frances Isom
  • Original opening date: September 6, 1913
  • Reopening date: April 8, 1997