Carnegie Libraries in Ontario: Vintage Postcards
"A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert." – Andrew Carnegie
During the early 20th century, 125 libraries in Canada were built with grants from the Carnegie Foundation. Of those, 111 were built in Ontario between 1903 and 1922. Many buildings were designed by local architects and were usually downtown, next to town halls, churches, near parks or in civic squares. These libraries were an integral part of the community and formed a key part of civic life.
According to the The Best Gift: A Record of the Carnegie Libraries in Ontario, “Picture post cards were frequently used to express a community’s pride in its Carnegie Library." Digital Archive Ontario, a historical resource of digitized items from Toronto Public Library, has an extensive postcard collection that includes over 100 vintage images of Ontario's public libraries.
Andrew Carnegie, 1835–1919, was born in Scotland and immigrated with his family to the United States. He became one of the wealthiest and most famous industrialists of his time. He founded the Carnegie Steel Company, which became the largest steel manufacturer in the United States.
When he retired in 1901 he sold his company to J. P. Morgan for $480 million dollars and then devoted his life to philanthropic work. Public libraries were of special interest to him. He donated $56 million for the building of 2,509 libraries worldwide with $2,556,660 granted for library construction in Canada.
Carnegie library grants
Two conditions had to be met in order for a town to receive a grant. First, the community had to provide the site for the building. Second, the community had to raise 10 percent of the endowment annually for the maintenance and upkeep of the library, which included books and staff.
Carnegie's secretary, James Bertram, personally approved all the Ontario grants. Starting in 1908, due to concerns about building functionality, he also approved all library building plans. In 1911 he wrote an instructional pamphlet Notes on the Erection of Library Buildings which provided cities and towns suggested floor plans. The design of the building exterior was left up to the community.
Typical architectural style
Most Carnegie libraries were built in the Beaux-Arts style that was popular from the 1880s through the 1920s. This style uses symmetry to create formality and elegance and Greek and Roman decorative elements such as classical columns, sculpted friezes, porticos and domes create a grand and imposing architectural statement.
You'll notice the similarities in design in the postcards below.
Watford Public Library
This was one of 15 Carnegie libraries designed by Guelph architect William Austen Mahoney.
Lindsay Public Library
This library opened in 1904 and was designed by architect George Martell Miller who designed many neoclassical buildings.
Wallaceburg's Carnegie library
Opened in December, 1907, this library was designed by architect A. M. Piper.
Seaforth Public Library
Seaforth Public Library opened in 1912. James Bertram, Carnegie's secretary, is buried outside Seaforth with his wife who was from Seaforth.
Picton Public Library
Picton Public Library was designed by architect Frank Peden. He also designed many Bank of Montreal buildings across Canada.
Preston Public Library
Preston Public Library opened in 1910. The building closed in 1973 when Preston, Galt and Hespeler merged to form the Cambridge library system.
Here are a few examples of larger libraries funded by Carnegie grants, including some of the more distinctive designs.
Brantford Public Library
Architects Stewart, Stewart & Taylor designed the impressive Brantford Public Library with a projected portico and four columns in 1902. (James Bertram disliked domes and considered them wasteful ornamentation.)
Goderich Public Library
Goderich diverged from the standard Beaux-Arts design and in 1902 built a Romanesque-styled library with a distinctive corner tower.
Fort William Public Library
Opened in 1912, the large Fort William Public Library is now a branch of the Thunder Bay Public Library.
Woodstock Public Library
With its grand portico and columns, this library was designed by Chadwick & Beckett of Toronto and opened in 1909.
Hamilton Public Library
This library in Hamilton opened in 1909. It had a grand double staircase with a white marble banister. The building is now used as a courthouse.
Galt Public Library
Designed by architect Frederick William Mellish and opened in 1903, this tall building has a grand portico, columns and detailed frieze.
James Bertram disliked library plans that used a corner site and especially disapproved of a corner entrance. In his opinion, such designs created wasted space and irregular interior space. There were only six corner buildings designed in Ontario — Guelph (1901), Brockville (1903), Dundas (1904), Perth (1906), Brussels (1909) and Toronto's Riverdale Branch (1909).
Guelph Public Library
Opened in 1904, Guelph Public Library was designed by architect William Frye Colvill.
Brockville Public Library
Brockville architect Benjamin Dillon designed this library which opened in 1904.
Perth Public Library
Distinguished architect Frank Darling designed Perth Public Library in 1906.
Brussels Public Library
Brussels Public Library was designed in 1910 by William J. Ireland, a builder and architect in Stratford.
Very few Carnegie libraries were built in stone. Here are three of them.
Fergus Public Library
Fergus Public Library was praised by Carnegie staff for its design and the Ontario Department of Education published plans for other libraries to follow. It was designed by architect William Austin Mahoney and opened in 1911.
St. Mary's Public Library
This library opened in 1905 and matched the stone and ornamentation of the Town Hall. It was designed by local architect Joseph A. Humphis and built by local stonemason Robert Clyde of rough cut limestone.
New Liskeard Library
This building was designed by North Bay architect Henry Westlake Angus in 1911 and used local limestone.
Toronto’s Carnegie libraries
Toronto received two grants from the Carnegie Foundation. Carnegie’s first grant to Toronto of $350,000 was the largest amount given anywhere in Canada. Toronto used the funds to open a new Central Library in 1909 and three branches: Yorkville in 1907, Queen & Lisgar in 1909 and Riverdale in 1910. Several years later a second grant funded three almost identical branches designed by Toronto architect Eden Smith. Beaches, High Park and Wychwood all opened in 1916.
Three neighbouring municipalities (now a part of Toronto) also received Carnegie funds. Western Branch in West Toronto opened in 1909. Weston Branch opened in 1914 and Mimico opened in 1915.
(We do not have any postcards of the Weston, Wychwood and Yorkville buildings. But you can learn more about those branches on TPL's website.)
The Central Library in Toronto was the largest Ontario Carnegie library. A. H. Chapman designed a building with strong neoclassical elements including Corinthian pillar, brick pilaster, bracketed cornice and rounded pediments around each door. Learn more.
This branch, seen here in approximately 1911, has a neo-classical corner design. Learn more.
High Park Branch
Architect Eden Smith said his buildings, like this one, were in the English Collegiate 17th century style. Learn more.
This branch was constructed at the corner of Kew Gardens on a site provided by the City of Toronto, despite opposition from local residents and the Parks Committee to having a building on park property. Learn more.
West Toronto Branch
This library incorporates features of Edwardian Classicism. Its orange-red exterior is embellished with Ohio sandstone. It was renamed Annette Street Branch in 1962. Learn more.
Mimico Public Library
Designed by Coon & Son architects, this building was demolished in 1966 to make way for a new library. Learn more.
This library was built as part of Victoria College at University of Toronto. It was the only academic library to receive Carnegie funding.
The late 1950s through the 1970s were not a good time for Carnegie libraries in Ontario. Several were demolished to make way for new and more modern buildings. Will a renewed interest in heritage buildings ensure their preservation for future generations?
Chatham Public Library
With its grand domed ceiling, this was the first Carnegie library to open in Ontario. By 1983 it was destroyed.
Collingwood Public Library
The first recorded request for an Ontario Carnegie grant was from Collingwood Public Library in 1899. It opened in 1904 and sadly was destroyed by fire in 1963.
Berlin Public Library
Berlin Public Library (the city was renamed Kitchener in 1916) opened in 1904. The building was demolished in 1962.
Cornwall Public Library
With its unique corner turret, this library opened in 1903. A new library was built on a different site and the Carnegie building was torn down in 1956.
Ottawa Public Library
Andrew Carnegie himself opened Ottawa Public Library on April 31, 1906. It was his first visit to Canada and in his speech, he said “I do not think that Washington compares with the buildings I have seen here.” Designed by architect E. L. Horwood, it was made of Indiana sandstone with the main entrance bracketed by four Corinthian columns and inside was a grand staircase and marble interior. It was demolished to create a new library that opened in 1973. The Corinthian columns were saved and moved to a local park. Learn more.
Sarnia Public Library
Architect R. M. Burrowes designed the fine Beaux-Art Sarnia Public Library with a central rotunda and domed roof. It was demolished in 1960.
St. Catharines Public Library
This library was demolished in 1977 and the massive stone with the words "Public Library" moved to the site of the new library.
Explore more online
- Over 100 vintage images of Carnegie libraries in Ontario (Digital Archive Ontario)
- List of Carnegie libraries in Ontario with key details (Government of Ontario)
- Information on Carnegie libraries in Toronto (Toronto Public Library)
Edits: Corrected number of libraries designed by architect William Austen Mahoney on Jan. 10, 2023. Added links about three TPL buildings not featured on Jan. 17, 2023.