Gloria Henderson has always been a fan of libraries. Henderson, 81, moved to the Central District in 1958 after reading about Seattle in...

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Gloria Henderson has always been a fan of libraries.

Henderson, 81, moved to the Central District in 1958 after reading about Seattle in a library in her hometown of Springfield, Mass.

So Henderson was eager to explore the Douglass-Truth branch library when it reopened Saturday after a 17-month, $6.8 million overhaul.

“From the outside, it’s incredible compared to what it was before,” she said.

What she found was an artful blend of modern style, cutting-edge technology, wide-open spaces and lovingly preserved history.

The refurbishment and expansion of the Douglass-Truth branch is one of the largest and most ambitious projects spawned by the $196.4 million “Libraries for All” bond measure passed by Seattle voters in 1998.

Completed in 1914, the Douglass-Truth branch was the first library funded entirely by the city of Seattle. It remains the largest of the 22 branches in the Seattle Public Library system, with room for nearly 67,000 books, magazines, CDs and DVDs.

Yet before the remodel, it was less than exemplary.

The building looked “shabby,” Henderson said, and the 8,000-square-foot interior was cramped and uninviting.

“There wasn’t a lot of space, there wasn’t as cheerful an environment,” said William Spiritdancer-Drake, 40, who enjoyed the opening with his wife, Roxann, and their four children.

In 2001, the Seattle Library Board set about to “polish the jewel,” said Gordon McHenry Jr., a former Library Board trustee who spent five years as the steward for the Douglass-Truth branch.

Librarians wanted a bigger and more functional space with a central reading room to showcase the more than 9,000 items in the branch’s African-American literature collection, the Northwest’s largest.

They also wanted new ventilation, lighting and electrical systems and wiring to support 36 computers for public use, up from 15.

Residents and community leaders wanted the grandeur of the original structure preserved. But they also wanted an architecturally distinct addition that could demonstrate that the library, like the Central District, was looking forward.

The Schacht Aslani Architects firm was selected in 2001 to meet those many demands.

A crucial decision, Walter Schacht said, was to put nearly all of the 8,400-square-foot expansion below ground level.

Consequently, looking at the building from the intersection of 23rd and Yesler Way today, the library appears virtually unchanged since 1914.

Facing 24th Avenue, however, is an unmistakably modern, flat wall of copper panels broken up by five small windows that frame glimpses of the original structure.

The new copper panels complement the copper gutters and downspouts on the original building.

Other efforts to blend old and new are visible throughout.

At the top of the stairs descending to the new reading room, a section of the original brick exterior is now an interior wall.

The old main room, which now houses the children’s reading area and checkout counter, is painted in a monochrome of beige that is an exact match of the original color from 1914. Schacht and his wife, Cima, hired a paint archaeologist from Vancouver, B.C., to get it exactly right.

Valerie Garrett-Turner, the branch’s manager, loves the changes. She said the new building feels a lot like the Central District itself.

“Newcomers want to bring a little piece of themselves to the neighborhood,” she said, “but they also appreciate and want to preserve what’s here.”

David Bowermaster: 206-464-2724 or