Calgary's Memorial Park Library: Yesterday, today and tomorrow

The Central Memorial Library and Park, as it was called in 1912 when it opened, has been designated a national historic site.

A women's club wouldn't take 'No' for an answer in 1900 — now it's been designated a national historic site

Chief librarian Alexander Calhoun, front right, stands with a group in front of the newly opened Memorial Park Library in approximately 1912. The building was recently designated a national historic site. (Glenbow Photo Archives)

This story was originally posted on Jan. 18. 

Our buildings are so much more than mortar and stone. They are our history etched into the very landscape of our city. They are part of our collective memory, our collective identity.

Calgary is a city which can seem to be in a constant state of reinvention. Cranes in the sky, holes in the ground, and a near endless stream of bold, new and sometimes brazen buildings.

What we choose to save of our past, those elements of our architectural history we preserve, speaks to how to see ourselves. They're the signs of our past, which help chart our road ahead. Knowing who we were, can sometimes help us understand who we wish to become.

And now, a new such place has been added to the list of these elements of our character we will protect — Central Memorial Library and Park.

The Central Memorial Library and Park has been designated a national historic site.

The community outreach librarian, Julia Harrington, shared with The Homestretch some of the sandstone building's history, present-day use and future potential.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length but you can listen to the complete interview here.

Q: What was your reaction when you learned the library was given this designation?

A: I can't tell you how excited I was. I practically started jumping up and down.

Q: Describe the library and the importance of its architecture

A: It's a beautiful structure.

It was built in the classical style of many Carnegie libraries at the time. There's a wonderful stairway leading up into the library — this is reflective of an elevation of thought — going into a large-columned building, with a Beaux-Arts arts sort of style and some really interesting high ceilings and marble floors.

It's beautiful, you just have to visit.

The circulation desk used to be front and centre. Today, it's off to one side. (Glenbow Photo Archives)

Q: Why is it important to preserve it?

A: It's extremely important. Our designation helps with that, but interestingly enough, this past summer we actually held a lecture on the loss of sandstone buildings and about how important this is.

That building is very important in Calgary, it's important to libraries in North America. We are just so happy to have been given this designation.

Q: Please share some of the history of the structure

A: Around 1900 there was a desire to create a library but unfortunately that original petition failed. The Calgary Women's Literary Club formed and they decided, 'Yes, we are going to develop this library.'

A very personable character, Annie Davidson — she was the head of the club — spearheaded this at 80 years young.

She sent the women off to create a petition and have it signed. They went door by door to get this signed. When they came back with not enough signatures, Annie Davidson said go back and get some more.

They eventually got enough signatures, it was brought to the city, and they went to Andrew Carnegie, who was a wealthy American industrialist, who funded the project.

Here's the library with scaffolding during the construction phase in the early 1900s. (Glenbow Photo Archives)

Q: What did it look like when it opened in 1912?

A: Fairly similar to what it is today, except with certain differences.

The central desk was right in the middle, behind that desk, where our present salon is, there were two levels of book stacks. To each wing, there were fireplaces, the children's department, the reference department and large spaces dedicated to lectures and learning.

Q: What did it cost at the time?

A: Andrew Carnegie donated $80,000 and the city put in $20,000, so that's quite a bit of money to build a library.

Here's a close up of shelving and history books in 1912. (Glenbow Photo Archives)

Q: Talk about the park

A: When the library opened in 1912, the park was really nothing.

It was a straggly wilderness, as described by Alexander Calhoun, our first librarian. It was developed over the next few years in a very formal style. It later became the Memorial Park Library to commemorate the First World War victims and then later wars.

About 15 years ago it was redeveloped. What you see now, is a closer rendition of what the original landscape architect wanted.

A formal garden with lovely structured paths, flowers and very specifically-placed trees. Calgary did an amazing job in redeveloping it.

This is the children's department of the library in approximately 1912. (Glenbow Photo Archives)

Q: What about the monuments?

A: They have changed somewhat over time.

You have monuments to the First World War, the Second World War. Some monuments have been moved over the years, but certainly there are several statues worth seeing.

The city does an amazing job keeping it up.

Q: For a period of time, it became a bit run down

A: Prior to the redevelopment, it was a bit of a sketchy area. But the city made it into a place that, once again, could be a gathering place for Calgarians.

It's really night and day, with some of the fountains the original architect wanted as well as some water fountains that kids can run through. It really is a beautiful location.

Julia Harrington, community outreach librarian at the Memorial Park Library, said she started jumping up and down when she learned the library had been designated a national historic site. (David Bell/CBC)

A: What's the future of the library?

A: We discovered through our research that creating an arts and culture hub was really the way to go.

We are now the home to the Sun Life Financial Musical Instrument Lending Library, we have regular music programs. We host arts and culture events.

We are the home location of Wordfest. I think you are just going to see over the next year, more and more arts and cultural events for Calgarians to enjoy.

Calgary: The Road Ahead is CBC Calgary's special focus on our city as we build the city we want - the city we need. It's the place for possibilities. A marketplace of ideas.

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