. memorial park library
1221 2 Street SW
This building, the first public library in Alberta, was the seed that brought about a flourishing of Calgary’s Intellectual and Educational institutions. Few realize that the libraries founding was the result of a small group of women who worked tirelessly to get it built - at a time when women were not even recognized legally as “persons”.
Built to a wealthy benefactor’s specifications, the building features hidden symbolism and a mysterious room deep within it. These little secrets combined with the incredible story behind the building make this building one of the most fascinating in the Beltline.
The Literary Club sets out to build a library with the help of a Robber-Baron:
In 1906, Mrs. Annie Davidson – an energetic 80 year old - invited a small group of women to her home on 13th and 4th street, to form the “Calgary Women’s Literary Club”. The small organization was made up of well educated women from the east who had all brought their personal libraries with them to the booming frontier town of Calgary. Their club soon moved to the ladies’ parlour of Wesley Methodist Church. Shakespeare's “Richard II” was the first book chosen by the group to discuss.
Among the reading clubs members was the wife of Reverend John Clark of Knox Presbyterian Church. In 1907, Rev. Clark preached a sermon on the Alberta Governments’ “Act to Provide for the Establishment of Public Libraries” and it’s importance. This sermon was the final catalyst that made the women determine that the citizens of Calgary needed a public library - a very ambitious goal for a city of only 12,000 people.
The women decided that their best course of action was to contact Andrew Carnegie for funds to build their library.
Carnegie was an American industrialist who had amassed a fortune of over $500 Million in the steel industry. He saw himself as very much of a “self-made man” who had taught himself through reading. Because of this he started a fund to assist in the building of libraries. In 33 years Carnegie’s fund assisted in the building of 2811 libraries world-wide (125 of these were in Canada).
Carnegie agreed to contribute $50,000, but only if the women could collect the signatures of 1/10th of the electors of the municipality. This meant that none of the women themselves could sign the petition (women in Alberta won the right to vote in 1916). This task was further complicated by the fact that many men simply refused to sign anything with Carnegie’s name on it… to them, Carnegie was a “Robber-Baron” whose fortune had been stolen through the exploitation of the workers. But the woman fought on and after a year of slow door-to-door petitioning, they managed to collect enough signatures on May 18 1908.
Carnegie “recommended” that the city use the Boston architectural firm of “McLean & Wright”. The architects supplied a design that was virtually identical to another library they had designed in Attleboro, Massachusetts. It is unknown if Calgarians were aware of this, but halfway through construction the supervisor and head stonemason went to visit the completed building.
Land was chosen for the library by plebiscite on August 12, 1908. The site chosen was 4.78 acres that the city had bought from pioneer settler William Pearce in 1889.
A contract for the construction was awarded to Richard A. Brocklebank (a multi-term alderman) of Henry Macauley & Co. Ltd. Robert Morton of Lethbridge was hired to supervise the construction. George Christie, an expert in ashlar masonry was hired as the head stonemason. By October 1908 the library site excavation was complete and the construction work began.
The buildings construction went over budget. Carnegie donated another $30,000 (for a total of $50,000), the city donated $20,000, and the Province gave $10,000.
Construction was completed in 1911.
Building Design: Secrets lie within
The design of the building features a “Rationalized-Classical” style. This style is characterized by simplified classical ornaments, symmetrical flat facades, strongly articulated central entrances, and symmetrical floor plans. This style was popular in the late Victorian era, and had gone out of style in the east – but the upper echelons of society in the west desired it, so the architecture in the west continued to reproduce it. The design also has a “Beau-Arts” influence (which is strongly reflected in the surrounding gardens).
The building was constructed of yellow Paskapoo sandstone, which was quarried at the Oliver Quarry (which was located where Canada Olympic Park now stands). Load bearing walls are sandstone finished smoothly and backed with brick. The roof is copper, the floors were constructed of Douglas Fir, and the trim throughout is of Mahogany and birch.
The library’s classically inspired front entrance features ionic columns supporting a complete pediment. An elaborate “escutcheon” with an open book is peaked by an ornate shell above it, all carved from sandstone. The entrance is completed with a flight of exterior granite steps and mahogany doors.
On either side of the doorways are lampposts at the top of the ascending staircase. This was a feature Carnegie insisted be included in the majority of his library buildings. To him it represented the patron ascending the upward path towards enlightenment. The inclusion of this symbolism was directly linked to Carnegie's involvement in Freemasonry. Stairs have always been a central theme in esoteric societies, and are central to the 2nd Masonic degree (Fellowcraft). It takes 15 steps to enter the library (The 15th actually takes you into the library); this is the supposed number of stairs that lead from the ground floor to the middle chamber of King Solomon's temple. In masonry, the middle chamber is the representative of the human mind, and the Fellowcraft is urged to study the 7 Liberal arts to hone ones mind, using the 5 senses, based upon the 3 principles of faith, hope, and charity (3+5+7=15).
The first story windows have balconies with iron railings. The smaller second story windows are decorated with elaborate latticing.
Upon entering the building, you are greeted by a Terrazzo marble floored foyer, flanked by staircases taking you to the second floor.
The main floor features a “gracefully” curved back wall with many windows to allow full view of Memorial Park and let in as much light as possible. There are two mahogany trimmed fireplaces, one on either side of the main floor.
The second floor features more plaster pillars, fireplaces, and a stunning skylight.
The strangest feature of the building is housed in the basement. It contains a vault. The room has metre thick cement walls and is clearly marked as the "vault" on the blueprints. It is unclear why a library would need a vault, considering the library had nothing important enough to necessitate a vault. The possibility exists that the room was included as another hidden feature of the library (according to legend there was a secret vault beneath Solomon's Temple). Alternatively, the vault could have been included in the original Attleboro blueprints to facilitate their needs, and was simply left in when the blueprints were reused for the Calgary library.
The library currently uses the vault to hold one of their treasures - it is used as the office of the Memorial Park Writer in Residence.
The Library Opens, and inspires the city
The library was completed in 1911, and officially opened its doors on January 2, 1912. The library's original 5000 books were looked over by Calgary’s first city librarian, Alexander Calhoun. Despite having no professional training when he arrived from Fort William, Calhoun is still revered for his dedication to the public library system and his commitment to serving the community (serving the community for over 34 years). He saw libraries as a form of free public education, and invested in books that would educate (such as plumbing and political books) rather than simply entertain. For instance when he brought in a number of books on Social Credit philosophy, William Aberhart began to borrow them, helping him round out his education on the Social Credit movement.
It was the first library that had been built between Winnipeg and Vancouver. It managed to attract over 5000 visitors within its first 3 months – a fantastic feat considering the population of the city was only 40.000 in 1912. 16% of Calgarians became library members and in its first week the shelves were bare.
The hard work of the Calgary Women’s Literary Club had paid off. Not only had they achieved their goal of a public library, but they had inspired and enabled Calgarians to pursue their intellectual passions. The Library quickly became home to the Historical Club of Calgary, the Calgary Natural History Society, and the Calgary Arts Association. The Library housed the cities first natural history museum, and gave a home to what would become Calgary’s Higher Educational Institutions.
The Library lays the seed of education:
Calgary’s first College
In 1903 Dr. Thomas Henry Blow arrived in Calgary with his family. As Calgary’s first Eye, Ear, Nose, and Throat specialist and as medical officer for the CPR he did quite well for himself. But he and a group of Calgary business men sought to do more, and petitioned the Provincial government for a University.
In 1907 the new capital, Edmonton, was given the Provincial University. Undaunted, Blow and his partners decided to go it alone and create their own University. Blow personally donated $40,000 (an amount that was roughly equal to 100 times what a factory OWNER made annually), and raised another million.
Registration opened September 30, 1912. The first Dean, Edward Ernest Braithwaite, arranged to use the basement reading room of the library for the first classes.
But the Government still refused to grant degree granting status to what was called the “Calgary College”. The economic downturn of 1913 eventually forced the college to close its doors.
But this early work laid the foundation for the future, and the province eventually gave Blow permission to build a sanctioned institute of technology (SAIT). The hard work led to the U of A opening branches in Calgary in 1945, which broke off and became the U of C in 1966.
Decay and Revival:
The library remained the main branch until the construction of the W.R. Castell Library opened in 1963. The Memorial Park Library Branch moved to the basement of the building from 1963-67.
Between 1964 and 1973, the building was leased to the Glenbow Foundation as an archives and research centre.
In 1976 the building was declared a Provincial Historical Resource. Les Fowlie was responsible for renovating the building. It reopened in 1977.
Today the building remains a working library, and a hub of intellectual discussions in the Beltline.
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