Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Arleta Library

The old Arleta Library at SE 64th and Holgate (now called the Wikman Building) is currently considered surplus property by Multnomah County. The following comments were sent regarding the future of the property. The photos are from the collection of the Multnomah County Library.

I am a resident of the South Tabor neighborhood writing in support of a plan that will return the Wikman Building – Arleta Carnegie Library to a use that will benefit Southeast Portland neighbors. The neighborhood grange proposal put forward by ROSE seems appropriate given the history of the building in this community.

The Arleta Library, opened in 1919, was one of seven libraries in Multnomah County funded by a Carnegie grant. To receive a grant the community had to demonstrate a need, provide a site, commit an annual amount equal to 10% of the original construction cost for operation, and offer free service for all.
“Carnegie had two main reasons for donating money to the founding of libraries. First, he believed that libraries added to the meritocratic nature of America. Anyone with the right inclination and desire could educate himself. Second, Carnegie believed that immigrants like himself needed to acquire cultural knowledge of America, which the library allowed immigrants to do.” 
Deconstructing the Carnegie Libraries:
The Sociological Reasons Behind Carnegie's 
Millions to Public Libraries by Michael Lorenzen, page 75 
A Carnegie library was often the most imposing structure in the community and this is certainly true for the Arleta Library.

The Wikman Building – Arleta Library is not only a jewel of a building with recognized historical significance, it represents a legacy handed down to us by forward thinking citizens who donated their hard earned nickels and dimes to provide free access to knowledge in this historically undervalued and underserved Southeast Portland community.
“The Carnegie library fund having set aside $15,000 for a modern library building, the residents of the Mount Scott district, embracing a large and populous district in the southeast part of the city, have started a campaign to raise the necessary $1800 with which to buy a lot . . . If each family of the district would pledge from 50 cents to $1 the site could be bought.” 
Oregonian – October 29, 1917
The land upon which the new library will be built was given to the library association by the residents of Arleta, who by subscription in their own community raised a fund of $1800 with which to purchase it.” 
Oregonian – February 10, 1918 
During the 53 years the building served as a library, thousands of adults and children passed through the doors seeking knowledge or respite. In addition to the usual library programs such as story time, in the 1930s a well baby clinic was offered on Mondays and Fridays. Libraries have long served as community centers. It is time we return this building to a public use that will provide a gathering place for programs that benefit the neighborhood.

The Arleta Library designed by noted Portland architect Folger Johnson, was modeled after a similar Carnegie grant library he designed in 1913 for St. Johns. Johnson is responsible for at least five Carnegie libraries in Oregon. He was a civic-minded individual who served on the arts commission and was twice president of the local AIA. From 1940 to 1950 he was the director of the Federal Housing Administration.

The Wikman Buidling – Arleta Library is one of only a few structures in this part of the city with architectural significance. Any future use must honor the historic character of the building and preserve it for future generations.

This was my childhood library and it served my grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, and friends from 1933 until it closed in 1971. I spent many happy hours there in the 1950s and 1960s. I remember the space as a warm and comforting retreat from the world even if some of the librarians were a bit too serious. The dark shelving, colorful book spines, and dark wooden library furniture balanced by light streaming through gracious windows created a welcoming atmosphere. When the building is opened again to the public, I can imagine tromp l’oeil bookshelves full of interesting titles or other public art painted on the walls to welcome a new generation of neighbors.

After 93 years the Wickman Building – Arleta Library has a soul. It is Multnomah County’s sacred duty to support a meaningful neighborhood use for this charming historic building.

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