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Coronado Public Library History

by Christian Esquevin


The Coronado Public Library began in 1890 as a group’s endeavor to do good works in Coronado. The Young People’s Society of Christian Endeavor, based at the Coronado Presbyterian Church, felt the need to supply reading matter to residents and visitors to Coronado, and so formed the Coronado Library and Free Reading Room Association on Saturday December 6, 1890. The YMCA and the Coronado Magazine Club donated reading matter and other items were purchased through donated funds. Early documents mention that, “a room was rented,” without specifying its location. It was apparently located on Orange Avenue in a building owned by A.W. Corbett. When he wanted the space back for his boot shop, the Library moved to the Nadeau House Hotel, also on Orange Ave between 2nd and 3rd Streets. Then when that establishment went bankrupt the Library paid its rent to the Coronado Beach Company. But at this point and for many years after, the Coronado Library survived on fundraisers and donations. Among its donors were the workers of the Coronado Foundry. In October of 1892 the Coronado Free Library at the Nadeau House closed in preparation for a move to the Hamilton building, a general store, at the northwest corner of 5th & Orange. The Library would reopen some three months later in combined spaces with the Coronado Athletic Club, and the manager of both would be J.E. Roberts.


Mrs. Elisha Babcock was an early supporter of the Coronado Free Library, and after some discussions with the Library Board members, she sought some more stable (and more affordable) solution for the Library. Accordingly, Elisha Babcock, then the Hotel del Coronado’s General Manager, offered the Del’s former Spring House Pavilion for use as library space. And he offered it for $50 a year with the lease a personal gift to the Library Association by him. This generous gift was thankfully accepted. The pavilion was moved adjacent to the trolley stop across the street from the Del. The pavilion had been the Spring House of the Del, and so considerable work had to be done to adapt it to a library. Besides bookshelves, new décor was called for. Miss Nordhoff, daughter of Charles Nordhoff, author of Mutiny on the Bounty, took over that responsibility. The new facility opened on March 4, 1895, as the Coronado Beach Library.


Capt. Charles T. Hinde held forth as President of the Library Board of Trustees the following year as a cycle of fundraisers were planned to maintain the Library and its collections. A fundraising water polo match was held at the Del’s “Bath House” between the “Blacks” and the “Reds” in March 1896. Mrs. Babcock held fundraising balls In March of 1896 and 1897. The latter, “Library Ball” at the Hotel netted a profit of $655.  Yearly balls around Valentines’ Day were held at the Del as fundraising events for the Coronado Library. By this time John D. Spreckels had provided the “spring house” rent free as the Coronado Library.


In 1899, adapting to the provisions of a new state law, the City placed tax monies in the Library Account for the first time.  By 1901 the City assumed the salary of the librarian and the cost of building upkeep, but all reading material still depended on donations.


Considering Mr. Spreckels’ past support, on February 17, 1908, the Library Board boldly voted to “request Mr. Spreckels to make a gift of a new library building, contingent upon its proper maintenance by the City.” Although there was considerable debate about the proper location for a public library, Mr. Spreckels donated not only the building but the services of his favorite architect, Harrison Albright.  Mr. Albrights’ design, in the style of the classic revival, contained approximately 1700 square feet and was built at a cost of $10,000. It was one of the first California buildings built of reinforced concrete. It was planned to hold 5000 books. The new Coronado Public Library opened in March of 1909 in its present location.


In 1918 Gabrielle Morton came on as the Head Librarian, she would stay for 33 years. By the late 1920s library space was already overcrowded and the Library Trustees had architect Richard Requa draw up expansion plans that would be the basis of a bond measure. The measure failed in 1929 and it was not until 1935 that two wings were added on either side of the “Spreckels” building. With the start of World War II an influx of Naval personnel and their families moved to Coronado. Population increased from 6,932 to 25,382.


In 1957 floor space was doubled with an addition in the back which provided a large book stack area as well as expanded seating and staff work space. In the prior year, nearly 150,000 books were checked out. In 1961 a Children’s wing was built. The Children’s Library offered many new advantages. For one, these were the peak years of the children’s population of Coronado, and the Library was keeping pace with special programs for youth – regular story hours, summer reading clubs, and the after-school crush of students working on assignments. Moreover, the new Children’s Library had its own entrance and its own check-out desk.


With the opening of the Coronado and San Diego Bay Bridge in 1969, Coronado’s slow-paced, contained village life came to an end and the City was forced to take a long hard look at what lay ahead.  A general plan – Coronado 1990 –was drawn up.  Regarding the Library, it stated, “Although the existing library is centrally located, it is not adequate to serve the existing or future population.  The Plan recommends that the existing 7,690 square foot library be expanded to 25,000 square feet...The new library should include areas for research, lectures, films, exhibits and reading.” The existing building was a hodgepodge of add-ons, the original 1909 structure and four added wings. The Library Board got in gear to promote the idea of an entire new building, and the Friends of the Coronado Public Library formed in 1970 to help. With City Council support, Homer Delawie AIA was hired to develop plans, which after debate, involved maintaining the old Spreckels building but demolishing all the other wings and building some 23,000 sq. ft. of new space. During construction library services moved to the recently vacated High School Library, which the City leased for the purpose. The new Coronado Public Library opened on June 16, 1974 as the cultural center the City had asked for.


The Mid-Century Modern style of open architecture was fairly flexible for many later added services and collections, although staff work areas were never adequate. Videos and later DVDs were added, and many computers. The computerization of the Library’s own systems and catalog started in 1985, and public Internet access was first offered in 1995. User space became the most crowded over time, especially in the Children’s Library.



In 1990 the Coronado Library celebrated its centennial with a year-long series of events including an Open House and the Marine Corps Band, a talk series by Ray Bradbury, Adm. James Stockdale, Disney President Frank Wells and others, a Centennial Ball in Spreckels Park, an old-time Birthday celebration in the park, and other events. The Coronado Library won a John Cotton Dana Library Public Relations Award based on this year long program.


By the new Millennium, Library staff and the Library Board had already formed a Library Expansion Planning Committee. Staff prepared a Needs Assessment document and the Library Board approved it. With City Council approval, architects submitted expansion plan ideas, and the firm of M.W. Steele Group out of La Jolla was selected to develop schematic plans.


The plans that were eventually approved and built involved keeping and restoring the original 1909 Spreckels building, keeping most of the Delawie building (although the corridors that linked the various sections and formed courtyards were demolished), and building an addition to the rear of the existing building. The project lasted two and a half years, from 2003 to 2005, during which the Library remained open for business for all but two weeks. During this construction but funded through Library bequests and fundraising, the Alfredo Ramos Martinez “El Dia del Mercado” fresco mural formerly at the La Avenida Café was restored and installed at the new Library Lobby. The Friends of the Library also purchased the “Canasta de Flores” mural by Ramos Martinez and that too was installed at the Library. Separately, a Children’s Library Entry Portal was commissioned from artist Brenda Smith to illustrate scenes from the Wizard of Oz and was printed on glass and installed as suspended panels. The Coronado Library also displayed many works of art including paintings, sculptures, and ceramics that enhanced the visitor’s experience. The newly expanded and remodeled Coronado Public Library offered ample lounge seating and study space, an expended Children’s Library with story hour room, a Teen Library, an exhibit gallery, wireless service, a public conference room, room for collection growth, and more.


The Coronado Public Library currently offers print, information databases, and digital services for all age groups including story times for the very young. Concerts, lectures, exhibits, and other special programs and activities are provided free of charge. Information is available at its website at: 




The Coronado Library was founded in 1890 by the Coronado Library and Free Reading Room Association.  It was supported for many years by gifts and fund raising.  In 1895 the Hotel del Coronado provided a rent-free small pavilion building for use for the "Coronado Beach Library", which was located by the trolley stop across the street from the hotel.  John D. Spreckels, then owner of the Hotel del Coronado, was later asked by the Coronado Library Trustees to build a permanent library building.  Mr. Spreckels agreed and had architect Harrison Albright design and build a classical revival library building on the West Plaza Park in 1909. 


The library building was given by John D. Spreckels to the City of Coronado and the people of Coronado.  The building still stands at 640 Orange Avenue.  This original building serves as the Spreckels Reading Room within the 40,000 square feet newly remodeled and expanded library building.


The Library includes study space at tables and carrels, lounge seating, wireless throughout, a large public meeting room and smaller conference room, separate Children's Library and Teen area, an Exhibit Gallery, public-access computers and collections in various subjects and formats. A used bookstore, the Second Hand Prose, is also operated by the Friends of the Library.



A Landmark Building – 1909 Coronado Public Library

The Coronado Public Library, founded in 1890, has graced its park setting since 1909 when John D. Spreckels had architect Harrison Albright design and build a classical revival library building on the West Plaza Park. The library building was given by John D. Spreckels to the people of Coronado.  Over the years, additions enlarged the original "Spreckels" library building.

With the major expansion and renovation of 2005, the classic building was restored to its original beauty and rededicated as the "Spreckels Reading Room." The restoration included recreating lost architectural embellishments and replacing the concealed skylight. The names of classic philosophers, once obscured, became visible again.

The Spreckels Reading Room, now over 100 years old, is a pleasant place to read in the company of art and books - thanks to the support of many generations of sponsors.

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