The longtime owner of the old Carnegie Library building in Ballard wants to sell it, but to someone who will preserve it.

Share story

A piece of Ballard’s history is up for sale: A handsome neoclassical building, right in the center of this popular neighborhood. Development possibilities abound. Or do they?

The building is the former Carnegie Library on Northwest Market Street and its current owners are private citizens, Karoline Morrison and her husband, Dennis Beals. The asking price is $3 million.

As Ballard has dramatically transformed in recent years from sleepy to hip with its extensive condo development and new restaurant and retail businesses displacing older ones, this particular building has remained surprisingly low-key.

Built in 1904 with partial funding from philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, the building served as the then-city of Ballard’s public library. In 1907 when Seattle annexed Ballard, the library became a branch of the Seattle Public Library system and remained that until 1963 when a new library building opened nearby.

Today, according to Morrison, theirs is one of only a few privately owned Carnegie Library buildings in the state.”This building is the love of my life,” said Morrison, “I think I’ve had a longer association with it than with nearly any person. It’s a part of me.”

Still, it’s time to move on. She’s looking for buyer and caretaker for the historic building.

“Someone like me,” she said, “but with money, who would be interested in having this building and continuing to preserve it.”

Its value, she insisted, could not be based solely on its income potential, as is the norm with commercial property. It must be viewed as “a trophy, of sorts,” she said.

Morrison does not have the property listed with a real-estate broker. Instead she sent out notices to a half-dozen or so businesses and investors she thought might have an interest in purchasing and preserving it, or know someone who would.

She said she’d want to just sit down and talk face-to-face with any potential buyer.

“Honorary” historic

The Ballard Carnegie Library building is listed on the National and State Registers of Historic Places, but that is considered an “honorary” recognition that does not carry any protections with it, said Greg Griffith, a deputy state historic preservation officer.

Only city-level designation gives a historic or significant building protection from demolition or major alteration.

According to Seattle’s landmarks coordinator, Beth Chave, the building has never been nominated for city landmark status.

Any major development or demolition proposed by a new owner, however, could trigger a state Environmental Policy Act review, Chave said.

That review, in turn, would likely result in the building being considered for landmark status by the city.

Despite her dedication to preserving the Carnegie Library building, Morrison never sought city landmark status for it, calling such a designation “restrictive.”

And yet she does not want the building torn down. She has tried to keep the building as close to its original state as possible. She said she plans to write into any sale contract that the building can never be demolished.

Seattle real-estate attorney Rebecca Wiess said that this type of a covenant can be written into a deed of sale.

This means that a seller can put a restriction on a property’s use that would stay with the property forever, even through subsequent sales.

But there is also an exception, explained Wiess, a “practicality control.” If a covenant is later deemed unreasonable, imposing economic hardship on a property’s current owner, there is a process by which the covenant can be lifted.

Pandora’s Castle

In the early 1960s, Karoline Morrison returned to her native Seattle after a few years as a showgirl and model in Hollywood.

She decided she wanted to be an antiques dealer, and upon seeing the old Ballard library for rent, she thought “I bet it has a lot of shelves.”

In 1964 Morrison rented the building for $150 a month from owner Morris Siegel, who had purchased it from the city a year earlier. After Siegel died in 1977, Morrison and her husband bought the building from the Siegel estate for $67,000.

Morrison operated her antiques store in the building for 23 years. She called it Pandora’s Castle.

Her many stories from those years include a time when a couple sheepishly came into the shop saying they’d stolen something and had had a change of heart. They wanted to return the stolen item.

Morrison and her colleague looked at one another and wondered what tiny trinket could have gone missing without their notice. The couple pulled up their car and unloaded the large antique chest of drawers they’d stolen.

Original features retained

Since closing her antiques store in 1987, Morrison has leased parts of the two-story building to various tenants, including a restaurant and a young man who lived in the basement for a time.

The building’s second-story has been converted to offices. Morrison’s current tenants include a chiropractic practice, an attorney and a Pilates studio. A fine-dining restaurant called Carnegie’s occupied the main floor of the building for several years, but closed in January.

A visitor to the building now can see many of the original features; spider-web windows, a grand double staircase and gracefully curved interior walls and windows.

“With its curves,” said Morrison said of the building, “it throws its arms around you.”

While the second-story offices have recently been updated, other parts of the building appear well-worn and in need of improvements.

A large commercial dishwasher, awaiting removal by the owners of now-closed Carnegie’s restaurant, sits in a small room that once served as the librarian’s office.

The next chapter

If Karoline Morrison finds the right buyer and sends her special building into its next chapter in someone else’s hands, she’ll still have her memories and stories to tell.

She even imagines renting back her little office space on the third floor.

Right now she’s working to find a new tenant for the main floor, maybe another restaurant or a cocktail lounge.

Something like a nightclub or performance spacewouldsuit her, because she’d really like to take the stage — in her treasured building — to do five minutes of stand-up comedy.

“Once a drama major, always a drama major,” she said.

Perhaps that can be written into the lease.