A Small Carnegie Library Finds More Space via Innovative Design Strategies

Carnegie Library, +VG Architects, small library,
In the main reading room, a newly created bulkhead with a walnut ceiling conceals HVAC and mechanical equipment. Library storage and utilities stow out of sight in the new cabinetry wall. Its tall narrow doors with concealed touch latches comprise a clean minimalist grid.

After selling his steel interests to J.P. Morgan in 1901 and fearing that he would die “disgraced” with so much wealth, Andrew Carnegie spent his remaining years spreading the largesse toward building thousands of public libraries throughout the British Empire and United States. Among them is the Rosemount Public Library, built in 1918 in Ottawa, where it is the last remaining Carnegie library and a vital community hub boasting the city’s second-highest circulation per square foot ratio of any branch.

Following the branch’s 2018 centennial, the Ottawa Public Library Board issued a Rosemount Revitalization proposal call to accommodate modern needs in a growing community. The Ottawa office of +VG Architects won the RFP, then persuaded the board to add $400,000 to the construction budget, finalizing at $2.4 million to enhance the library experience. +VG has an extensive background in this building type, including the renovation of eight other Carnegie libraries in Ontario.

During a series of public consultations hosted by +VG Partner and Ottawa office head Dan Wojcik, library users asked him to increase the public floor space and make it totally accessible, provide more-comfortable reading spaces, open tight spaces between shelves, bring in more daylight, consolidate the children’s area, add rooms for group study and community use, ensure environmentally sustainable operations by offering parking for bikes and strollers, and making drop-off more accessible.

A glass reading room, named the Lantern, features hidden words spelled out in the windows’ custom frit pattern, which also deters bird strikes and solar gain.

The library had been renovated in 1932 and again in 1982, when the original charming pilastered entry portico was replaced by a boxy, utilitarian standing-seam-metal-clad structure. Consequently, historic preservation was not an issue in creating the newly prominent and accessible main entrance featuring a new vestibule and book return topped by a glass reading room.

The library measures 6,089 square feet over 2 stories plus basement. “It’s a tiny building,” Wojcik says. “But we carved out as much utility as we could. In the main reading room, for instance, the challenge was to create unique separate spaces for the users, even though they’re all essentially in the same room, while retaining open sightlines.”

In the main reading room, the dropped ceiling was removed to expose the original stained-oak ceiling beams and their cove details. Previously blocked windows were uncovered to let in views and daylight and replaced with new, energy-efficient fenestration. The main stairway’s double handrail inconspicuously accommodates accessibility needs with twin sets of walnut railings at adult and child heights. And the library’s artist-in-residence program was tapped to provide a squadron of colorful paper-airplane sculptures. Suspended from the children’s room ceiling, they playfully animate the area.

The library’s Artist-in-Residence Daniel Martelock was commissioned to create a work in collaboration with neighborhood schoolchildren, who designed paper airplanes that he recreated in powder-coated metal. His multicolored sculptures suspended from the ceiling seem airborne, playfully animating the children’s reading room while acting as a wayfinding device.

Other improvements include a 25 percent increase in public floor area; a 78 percent increase in public seating; two bookable meeting rooms; a dedicated teen area; raising the steel beams in a staff area to create code-complaint headroom; and a non-gendered accessible washroom with a height-adjustable, adult-sized change table.

Construction commenced in 2019 and was completed in July 2021. The project team comprised Dan Wojcik, architect of record; Jacob Kelly, technologist and lead contract administrator; Stewart Roenz, technologist; Nasr Chamma and Chris Howard, architects; Alejandra Leon Degante, designer; and Jason Hiebert and Jason Hiebert, intern architects.

PHOTOS: Kevin Belanger

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