Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 6/7/2015 (720 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
What does New York's Carnegie Hall, one of the world's most prestigious concert venues, have in common with a little red-brick library at the foot of Winnipeg's Maryland Bridge?
Both were built by Andrew Carnegie, the richest man in the world at the turn of the last century. Carnegie was a Scottish-American rags-to-riches industrialist who, in 1901, sold his steel company to J.P. Morgan for a staggering $500 million ($14 billion in today's dollars). The eccentric businessman lived with a personal dictum: spend the first third of one's life getting all the education one can, spend the next third making all the money one can, spend the last third giving it away to worthwhile causes.
True to his blueprint, by his death in 1919, Carnegie had given away 90 per cent of his wealth. His most effective and farthest-reaching philanthropy was a program to build neighbourhood libraries. Believing the best way to help someone was to give them the ability to help themselves, he provided municipalities with funding for library construction, with the requirement they remain freely accessible to everyone in the community.
In the end, Carnegie built 2,507 libraries across the world. Three of them were in Winnipeg, including the city's first library at 380 William Ave., just west of downtown. The city's head librarian, who was working in a makeshift space in city hall, wrote to Carnegie in 1901, asking for assistance in creating a new building for his book collection. The response was swift, with Carnegie pledging to erect a $75,000 building if the city would purchase the land and provide operating funds of at least $7,500 per year.
The William Library would remain the city's main branch and one of the busiest in Canada for 72 years. It later became the home of the City of Winnipeg Archives, one of the most complete civic collections in the country.
In 2013, however, significant water damage from a storm would cause the collections to be moved and the building vacated. Following this incident, Ager Little Architects was hired to design a redevelopment of 380 William Ave. that would make it an appropriate long-term home for the archives. The plan would transform the building into an important centre of research and preservation for the city. Upgrades include lighting and mechanical systems, areas for new research and public programming and a large, climate-controlled vault that would be inserted into the main space to protect the valuable collections.
While the building sits vacant, plans to implement the upgrades have been stalled for the past two years as they await funding from the city. The archives are currently maintained in leased spaces downtown.
Two other Carnegie libraries in Winnipeg, the second and third branches in the city, have been serving their residential communities since 1915. The Cornish Library on West Gate near the Maryland Bridge and the St. John's Library on Salter Street in the North End were built at the same time by the Carnegie Foundation. Both celebrated 100th anniversaries this year, with public announcements they will soon begin the process of modernization to ensure they remain woven into their neighbourhood fabric as vital community education and gathering spaces.
The architects at PSA Studio have been given the task of bringing the century-old buildings up to modern codes of accessibility, with new stairs, storage, washrooms and elevators. They hope to leverage the need for these elements to also elevate the facilities' social and cultural accessibility in the spirit of Andrew Carnegie's original goals, restoring their role as important public learning places within their neighbourhoods.
A century ago, local designers of the later Carnegie libraries were restricted to choosing from a number of pre-packaged plans they would adapt to their specific site. This resulted in a very similar physical appearance for each building. The new additions for Cornish and St. John's respect this tradition by proposing solutions that have a related character and palette of materials, but are nuanced to respond to the unique conditions of each building, site and neighbourhood.
The key civic gesture for each proposal is to add a projecting glass box that becomes a visible gateway to the neighbourhood and modern public face for the buildings. Each addition has a welcoming transparency that breaks down the fortress-like appearance of the historic brick buildings and allows the warmth and activity within to be expressed on the exterior as a vibrant community space.
The St. John's proposal orients this new addition to Salter Street, redefining the main facade, making a strong urban connection to the busy thoroughfare and adjacent schoolyard, as well as providing views from a new reading room across the neighbourhood.
The Cornish Library sits on a smaller residential street, so the historic facade will be preserved. The new addition will face towards the back and will be visible from the Maryland Bridge. The cantilevered glass box will extend towards the river and over the back garden. This will connect the building to its natural surroundings and create a new sunlit interior community space, with views through the riverbank forest that will be ideal for reading, working or just daydreaming.
Winnipeg's three Carnegie libraries stand as a reminder of the city's international prominence a century ago.
Carnegie built each one believing communities should be drawn together around places of learning and education. The stone inscription above the doors at 380 William Ave. reads "Free to All," reflecting his original mandate from a century ago.
Redefining these buildings as modern and accessible, residential-scale civic spaces will not only preserve local neighbourhood character, it will allow them to continue to bind together the fabric of our communities for the century to come.
Brent Bellamy is senior design architect for Number Ten Architectural Group.