stats Making the Business of Life Easier

   Finance globeinvestor   Careers globecareers.workopolis Subscribe to The Globe
The Globe and Mail /
Home | Business | National | Int'l | Sports | Columnists | The Arts | Tech | Travel | TV | Wheels


  This site         Tips

  The Web Google


  Where to Find It

Breaking News
  Home Page

  Report on Business



Subscribe to The Globe

Shop at our Globe Store

Print Edition
  Front Page

  Report on Business




  Arts & Entertainment



   Headline Index

 Other Sections

  Births & Deaths






  Facts & Arguments




  Real Estate









  Food & Dining




  Online Personals

  TV Listings/News

 Specials & Series
  All Reports...


   Where to Find It
 A quick guide to what's available on the site



  Customer Service

  Help & Contact Us



 Web Site

  E-Mail Newsletters

  Free Headlines

  Globe Store New

  Help & Contact Us

  Make Us Home

  Mobile New

  Press Room

  Privacy Policy

  Terms & Conditions


A library of old stone, new glass and few books
Cambridge's Old Post Office is part of a new wave of facilities turning the page on the library's role in the community - placing the focus on a range of services and programs beyond the printed word

Email this article Print this article
Saturday, April 6, 2019 – Page R4

The granite front of an old post office stands solidly on Water Street in Cambridge, Ont. But inside this 1885 building are things that its architect, Thomas Fuller, could never have imagined: laser cutters. 3-D printers. An espresso bar.

And it's all under the auspices of the local public library, which calls the place an "Idea Exchange." The Old Post Office, as it's known, captures the spirit of this new type of library facility: There are very few books here, but librarians are around to educate and to help patrons create.

The new building, overseen by RDH Architects, is an ideal container for this sort of activity. The architecture folds together eclectic Victoriana and bright, spare neo-Modernism, packing new space in a complex weave around Fuller's building. It sends a message: This is a public facility made for invention and reinvention.

The facility is part of a wave of libraries that provide a wide range of services and programs: Most conspicuously, the new Calgary Central Library, which opened in November, and its Halifax counterpart. RDH has designed a number of excellent examples over the past decade.

"Librarians have found their print collections were starting to shrink, and so there was new real estate up for grabs," says Tyler Sharp, principal at RDH and the Old Post Office's lead designer.

The main results have been "spaces of creation," where librarians "can help you take the information you've learned and use it to produce something."

This is exactly the case at the Old Post Office. "People come to the library because they want to have an experience," explains Helen Kelly, chief executive of Idea Exchange, the city organization that oversees libraries. "But the nature of that experience has changed."

To illustrate, she led me to Monigram, the café on the main floor of the Old Post Office. When you order, the staff give you a table marker - a wooden card printed on the laser printers upstairs, in a plastic base that emerged from the library's 3-D printer.

The library offers its patrons the use of these devices and instructions on how to work them. It also has a music-performance room, with a full array of electronic and electric instruments; video-editing suites; sewing machines and hand tools.

There are almost no books.

However, another library branch, a few minutes' walk away, has an extensive collection. Ms. Kelly explains that the Old Post Office facility is intended to bring in visitors to the heart of old Galt, and to provide both recreation and education - "digital literacy," she says, that "builds upon a foundation of print literacy."

Fitting all this required "threading-the-needle architecture," Mr. Sharp says, "trying to take this technology and these functions and squeeze them into a building that was not intended for them." The post office itself remains tightly constrained by a street to the east, the Grand River below to the west and by buildings to the north and south.

In organizing the library, the architects put performance spaces on the lower level, which sits within and behind the old building's basement; a café and flexible event space on the first floor; and the children's area on the second floor. Finally, there is a maker space for adults in the attic of the post-office building, a tall gabled room that - after elaborate reconstruction and some coats of white paint - feels like a fine place to make something beautiful.

Indeed the entire complex has that same quality: just the right balance between sparseness and detail, rusticated and polished.

RDH and their collaborators, heritage specialists ERA Architects, chose to leave much of the postoffice building intact. They restored the exterior walls, made of rough-cut granite, and left intact some of the ornamental woodwork and much of the decorative stained glass. In this way, they've toned down - but retained - the eclectic spirit of Fuller's building, which mixes up sturdy Romanesque and showy Second Empire.

And the two work well together. Mr. Sharp's preferred palette for libraries is minimalist. He is a good enough designer to know that spare, largely white interiors need some colour and texture to bring them to life. Here, that's achieved through crayon-bright upholstered furniture, but mostly by retaining the old.

The new addition embodies a contemporary attitude attitude to public architecture. "The general idea is of a very light, open and transparent contemporary architecture, in contrast to the existing building," Mr. Sharp says.

The Galt building was part of a national construction program, meant to showcase the power and presence of the young Canadian state. (Fuller also designed the original Centre Block on Parliament Hill, which burned in 1916, and the Library of Parliament.) It was grandiose, with very high ceilings on two levels, a clock tower and an entrance that required visitors to mount six steps to the elevated main level.

Now, RDH has placed a new entrance in a glass pavilion on the street; from here, you can take either a stair or a short elevator ride and then move into the heart of the building.

And while the old building is asymmetrical, the new additions are even more so. They hang onto the back of the building, even protruding out over the Grand River.

This is partly practical - the library needed more space - but also symbolic; as you see the building from a nearby bridge or across the river, it feels exuberant, unpredictable, daring.

Old and new come together in subtle ways. As you look through the glass, you'll notice a pattern printed on it: a diagonal grid, which was drawn from carvings in the granite at the pediment of Fuller's building. A pattern carved in stone is now marked on glass, shaping your vision as you look out to the city and the world beyond.

Associated Graphic

More than 130 years after it was constructed, the old Water Street post office in Cambridge, Ont., is now a library that houses high-tech devices such as 3-D printers and laser cutters.

While the lower levels offer performance spaces and a café, the library's attic has been repurposed into a maker space - a bright, gabled room designed as a place to create something beautiful.


Friday, April 12, 2019


A Saturday architecture story about a new library in Cambridge, Ont., incorrectly identified ERA Architects as the heritage architects on the project; in fact, ERA completed a conservation master plan for the building, but Steven Burgess Architects served as the heritage specialists.

Huh? How did I get here?
Return to Main Heather_Mallick Page
Subscribe to
The Globe and Mail

Email this article Print this article

space  Advertisement

Need CPR for your RSP? Check your portfolio’s pulse and lower yours by improving the overall health of your investments. Click here.


7-Day Site Search

Breaking News

Today's Weather


Rick Salutin
Merrily marching
off to war
Roy MacGregor
Duct tape might hold
when panic strikes

Where Manley is going with his first budget



For a columnist's most recent stories, click on their name below.


Roy MacGregor arrow
This Country
Jeffrey Simpson arrow
The Nation
Margaret Wente arrow
Hugh Winsor  arrow
The Power Game

Rob Carrick arrow
Personal Finance
Drew Fagan arrow
The Big Picture
Mathew Ingram arrow
Brent Jang arrow
Business West
Brian Milner arrow
Taking Stock
Eric Reguly arrow
To The Point
Andrew Willis arrow

Stephen Brunt arrow
The Game
Eric Duhatschek arrow
Allan Maki arrow
William Houston arrow
Truth & Rumours
Lorne Rubenstein arrow
 The Arts

John Doyle arrow
John MacLachlan Gray arrow
Gray's Anatomy
David Macfarlane arrow
Cheap Seats
Johanna Schneller arrow

Murray Campbell arrow
Ontario Politics
Lysiane Gagnon arrow
Inside Quebec
Marcus Gee arrow
The World
William Johnson arrow
Pit Bill
Paul Knox arrow
Heather Mallick arrow
As If
Leah McLaren arrow
Generation Why
Rex Murphy arrow
Japes of Wrath
Rick Salutin arrow
On The Other Hand
Paul Sullivan arrow
The West
William Thorsell arrow

Home | Business | National | Int'l | Sports | Columnists | The Arts | Tech | Travel | TV | Wheels

© 2003 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Help & Contact Us | Back to the top of this page