The passage of time is not always kind to old buildings. They may be permanently altered or torn down and replaced to suit the needs of new owners; abandoned and left to die from neglect; they may fall victim to fires or other disasters. And even when buildings manage to survive, their stories and those of the generations that built them and lived, worked or played in them can easily be lost forever in the tug of war between past and present.
The Vaughn Library Hall being restored by the Key Peninsula Historical Society is an exception.
The last remaining of the many library and meeting halls that dotted the Key Peninsula for decades starting in the late 1800s, the Vaughn Library Hall was built around 1895 and was in continuous use until 1956. The original building and its later additions have weathered the decades relatively intact.
In 1956 the library became a part of the Pierce County Library System and by 1957 it had moved to the high school in Vaughn (now the KP Civic Center). The hall was then sold to Harmon Van Slyke, Sr. and was used as a private residence until the death of its last occupant in 2012, Jerry Wolniewicz, Van Slyke’s grandson.
In 2016 Wolniewicz’s sister Donna Docken offered to donate the building to the KPHS. Board president Judy Mills saw a rare opportunity to breathe life back into an historic building. “The hall was a grand lady and deserves to hear the voices of Key Peninsula families enjoying her spaces again,” Mills said.
A group of community volunteers under the direction of KPHS board member Paul Michaels undertook the cleanup. “There was a lot to do,” Michaels said. “The interior was in some rooms knee-deep with furniture, junk and trash.” Working once a week for a couple of years, the crew saved historically significant artifacts while also taking 60 truckloads to the dump for recycling or disposal.
“The hall was a grand lady and deserves to hear the voices of Key Peninsula families enjoying her spaces again.”
About that time, Michaels met Bart Wolfe, a retired architect who had worked on historic restoration projects in California. “We immediately grabbed him for our team,” Michaels said. “His knowledge of building construction guided us in dismantling interior walls with confidence that we would not harm the integrity of the building.”
Wolfe is impressed with the quality of the hall’s construction and design. “This is a very good example of vernacular architecture,” he said. “Even though there were no architects or engineers involved, they created a strong and stable building that was visible from the water and was very usable inside. When they added on to it, they did so in a way that didn’t look like patchwork. The building was built well and was maintained well.”
The private owners made several alterations over the years but kept the original structure of the building intact. Interior walls were added to subdivide the space; windows and exterior walls were covered with plywood. Michaels, Wolfe and their crew of volunteers have been removing those added elements, revealing original design and structural elements and offering clues about the hall’s early appearance.
The hall is well documented in historical photographs in the museum’s archives. The original hall had consisted of a single room, used for meetings, dances or other community events; the library’s bookshelves occupied an area in the corner. “We have a lot of records of both the interior and exterior finishes,” Wolfe says. “That’s exciting, since we can now finish this in a historically accurate way.”
Wolfe points to the windows that were exposed once the plywood covering them was taken off. “You can even see what color they were,” he says. “We have (black and white) pictures of the original windows so we know what they looked like and what size they were. That means we can replicate them perfectly.”
As of 2017 the hall is on Pierce County’s Register of Historic Places (see “Vaughn Library Hall Achieves Historic Landmark Status,” Key Peninsula News, Dec. 2017). In 2018 the state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation designated it a Historic Building, which qualifies the Vaughn Library Hall to apply for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places, allowing it in turn to apply for federal grant reimbursement funding.
By January 2019 the KPHS had obtained a building permit and secured enough funding to plan construction repairing the foundation and the exterior wall framing and adding a wheelchair-accessible ramp. Work has been underway since March, performed by Chuck West Construction and Contracting.
“Restoring this is a large effort, both dollar- and timewise,” Wolfe said. “Once we finish the ADA ramp and get the outside stabilized, we can focus on finishing the library itself, since that room stands alone and construction in the rest of the building can continue.”
The Vaughn Library Hall is at the intersection of Hall and Van Slyke roads in Vaughn. For more information on the restoration or to donate, visit keypeninsulamuseum.org
Vaughn Library Hall Chronology
1887: Van Slyke family arrives in Vaughn from Yates Center, Kansas.
1889: The Bowery, a dance floor decorated with tree boughs, is built that spring on Alfred Van Slyke’s property. The library hall would later occupy the site of the Bowery.
1889: Harry and Julia Coblentz, friends of the Van Slykes, arrive in Vaughn. The Coblentzes purchase land from Alfred Van Slyke; the land includes the future library site.
1892: Vaughn Bay Public Library Association is formed; library is located at the general store and post office.
1894: Harry and Julia Coblentz deed parcel to the library association for $1. Construction of a one-room combined meeting and library hall on the former dance floor site, which may have begun in 1893, is completed. The library occupies part of the room.
ca. 1910: Hall is expanded with the addition of a stage and dressing rooms.
1926: A separate room is added for the library, which has outgrown its corner of the meeting hall. The library now has its own entry from the road. A kitchen is also added to the hall at this time, and a basement is dug out.
1956: Library moves to the high school in Vaughn (now KP Civic Center), becomes part of the Pierce County library system. Many books are left in the old hall.
1957: Vaughn Bay Public Library Association quitclaims the property to Harmon Van Slyke, Sr. for $600. The hall is converted to a private residence, but the original structure remains unchanged.
2012: Jerry Wolniewicz, Harmon Van Slyke’s grandson and last occupant of the house, dies. Wolniewicz’s sister Donna Docken inherits the property.
2015: Docken offers to donate the property to the Key Peninsula Historical Society.
2016: KPHS board (Judy Mills, president) accepts the donation. Cleanup begins.
2017: Pierce County Council unanimously adds the hall to the county’s Register of Historic Places.
2018: State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation unanimously designates the hall a Historic Building.
2019: Building permit obtained; restoration work begins.
Sources: R. T. Arledge, “Early Days of the Key Peninsula”; Pierce County archives; Key Peninsula Historical Society