Ancestral Roofs

"In Praise of Older Buildings"

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Extreme makeover edition...

While I was at our wonderful 'new' Belleville public library the other day (did I mention that it was the 2009 design excellence award-winner from the Ontario Association of Architects?) looking for a photograph of the old Quinte Hotel , I checked out a book called Historic Belleville. Sounded promising, I thought. Historic Belleville is a 1977 publication from the prolific Mika publishing empire. In this publication I found (along with a reproduction of a post card of the Quinte Hotel) an equally fine post card reprint of the Corby Library in its original form.

I had been a patron of the 'old' library, the Corby Library, since my return to the Quinte area and always wondered about the building's history. Bits and pieces had come to light over the years, but it wasn't until I saw the hand-coloured image of the library in this book, that I fell in love. I look back now on my flirtation with the mosaic floors, marble bits here and there, the huge stained glass window, the pillars with Ionic capitals, the high ceilings and wide archways, the nooks and crannies, all noted in passing while I was on the hunt for a book or other resource, and realize what I felt was puppy love, immature. I did not realize how my deeper feelings for the place would develop as I learned its architectural story.

Like many libraries in Ontario, the library grew out of a Mechanic's Institute begun in 1876. (Eric Arthur in No Mean City introduced me to this most democratic of early institutions devoted to the betterment of mankind). The former Corby library started life as the Merchants Bank of Canada in 1855, was purchased, remodelled and outfitted as a library by Senator Henry Corby and his wife, and presented to the people of Belleville in 1908. What a legacy!

For all the years I had known the Corby library, it had been living with an embarrassment, which admittedly, stood between us. As an enthusiast for heritage buildings, I must admit that I never appreciated that 1959 addition. Certainly, it provided much-needed space (a further addition was built in 1968, behind the building). The new addition was enthusiastically greeted by local press, the reading public and library legend Angus Mowat (yup, Farley's dad). But to my mind, that self-consciously modern rectangle was a carbuncle on the pure and serene Renaissance Revival building, its boldness emblematic of the demolish-and- build-boxes-go-modern-or-go-home attitude that was beginning to gain ascendancy in Belleville in the early 1960's.

And as an aside:
Mea culpa. As a more recent apologist for mid-century modern and later styles, I kind of like the 1959 addition now - the glass blocks, ribbon windows and bold banding, and the grey which did try to coordinate with the ashlar stone of the original structure.

I'll attach photos of various stages in the Corby Library's development (in no particular order as I have yet to gain much influence over Blogger Uploader's placement decisions.)

Left: Corby Public Library addition 1959
Right: original Corby Public Library (undated post card)
Below: former Corby library, 2010 (now housing the Core Centre art school) - my 2011 photo

So thanks: to Historic Belleville and Belleville Centenary Flashback for the photos, to Senator Corby for the gift of a library, and to the 21st century council and architects, people of vision who built a modern new library and social hub - it's a great thing for a community to gather around an art gallery and shop, cafe, film club showings, wifi lobby, lectures, workshops and lunch talks, special kids' events, coffee, Nanaimo bars and oh, yes - books (no "trouble in river city" here).


  1. I have really enjoyed this post, Lindi! The old library was a haunt of my mother's in the 1980s and you know, of course, that I attended the drawing classes in the CORE Centre's lower level last year. Nice to know the building's history and to be able to enjoy the new building just across the way. Thanks for digging and sharing.

  2. Hey, glad you liked it and thanks for getting in touch - as always! Now I have to find out how to get a tour of the old library to feel the love.