Cornish Library restoration wins Heritage Winnipeg awards

Heritage Winnipeg, a non-profit charity that promotes the restoration, rehabilitation and preservation of Winnipeg’s built environment, recently gave two awards for restoring the city’s venerable Cornish Library.

The City of Winnipeg, which owns the library, received an Institutional Conservation Award for developing and executing a successful interior restoration and addition to the original building.

Public City Architecture Inc. was also given an Institutional Conservation Award. Heritage Winnipeg cited the Winnipeg firm’s “sensitive heritage restoration, accessibility and building code upgrades, along with a sympathetic community reading room addition at the back of the historic building.”

Built in 1915, Cornish Library is located in Armstrong’s Point, a residential inner suburb located southwest of downtown Winnipeg.

The library, which has a Grade II heritage designation, has a red brick exterior and features oak and walnut woodwork, fireplaces and a decorative mezzanine.

The library closed in 2018 and reopened almost exactly three years later, after having undergone significant renovations to both the upper and lower levels.

In order to keep the original character of the library, existing woodwork throughout the building was retained and refreshed.

Cornish Library is one of three Winnipeg public libraries that were built a century ago with donations from American self-made millionaire and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.

Carnegie helped build 125 libraries in Canada. In addition to Winnipeg, Carnegie-funded libraries were constructed in Ontario, Alberta, B.C., Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and the Yukon.

A second Carnegie Library, the St. John’s Library in the city’s north end, was also refurbished by Public City.

The program of requirements of the project, which preceded the Cornish Library job, included both heritage restoration and interior and exterior accessibility upgrades.

A new entry hall, which doubles as a reading room, was added as well as building systems upgrades that meet new energy and accessibility codes. The scope of work also included adding a community plaza and a storm water retention garden.

The addition includes an elevator, main stairs, a seating area, magazine racks and a standing work table.

In the Carnegie Reading Room, stacks remain in their original locations and the furniture has been restored.

“With attendance down and the facility outmoded, the modest $1.9 million budget came with a long to-do list,” said Public City in an announcement. “But five years from design to construction, and a number of community engagements, heritage applications and program reviews along the way, attendance and circulation numbers are up to nearly double what they used to be.”

The third Winnipeg Carnegie Library, the William Avenue Library, is the former main branch of the city’s system, located not far from the intersection of Portage and Main.

Opened by the governor-general of Canada in October 1905, the main floor of the two-storey stone building contained a men’s reading room, ladies’ reading room, general reading room, reference area, book stacks and offices.

The second floor had more book stacks, a children’s department and a hall used in a regular Saturday afternoon lecture series.

In 1977, the main branch moved to the Centennial Library (now the Millennium Library), located several blocks to the southwest, but William Avenue continued to be used as a branch library.

When the William Avenue branch closed in the mid-1990s, the City of Winnipeg Archives moved into the building. 

In 2012, Heritage Winnipeg gave the municipally-designated historic building a Conservation Award.

In 2013, the building underwent a major renovation that would have made it a state-of-the-art archival facility, including a temperature- and humidity-controlled storage vault.

But Fate intervened. The building suffered extensive water damage when a hole in its roof was left uncovered by contractors during two major rainstorms.

The archival collections were moved out and the building now stands empty.

In 2018, The National Trust for Canada put the William Avenue Library on its Top 10 Endangered Places List.

Cindy Tugwell, executive director of Heritage Winnipeg, says it’s important to keep Winnipeg’s old libraries in good shape and still doing what they were built to do.

“Our libraries are part of Winnipeg’s rich history and our social identity,” said Tugwell. “They are an integral part of our communities and enhance our neighbourhoods.”

Because elected officials come and go, she says, it is important for local government to continue its commitment to protect the city’s library legacy for future generations.

“We must lead by example to preserve these architectural gems and to maintain and upgrade them,” said Tugwell. “It is also more environmentally and financially sustainable than a new build and improves our quality of life.”

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