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A grand gesture in the age of thrift

September 16th, 2015 · No Comments

A review from when the Lillian H. Smith Branch was new

One of Ludzer Vandermolen’s griffins, which guard the entrance to the Lillian H. Smith Branch of the Toronto Public Library. Brian Burchell, Gleaner News

One of Ludzer Vandermolen’s griffins, which guard the entrance to the Lillian H. Smith Branch of the Toronto Public Library. Brian Burchell, Gleaner News

In the October 1995 edition of The Annex Gleaner, Alfred Holden reviewed the then new Lillian H. Smith Branch of the Toronto Public Library. On this, the branch’s twentieth anniversary, we thought we’d take a look back at what we thought then. You be the judge: how has Lillian H. Smith stacked up over time?

By Alfred Holden,

Quick. Find a creative six-year-old, paper, and a box of crayons, and have the youngster draw a library. What does it look like? A box, like a house with a steep hipped roof, maybe with a flag at one end and a chimney on the other?

Perhaps there are a couple of grimacing griffins, like the beasts in fairy tales, guarding the door. There are probably big windows because, as any kid will tell you, it’s nice to have a bright sunny place to read a book.

Dreaming on, wouldn’t it be nice if there were more books for kids; a whole building of them? Why not? Where youngsters – maybe by clicking with a mouse on a squeaky clean new computer – could find some favourites themselves.

On the shelves there would be classics like Goodnight Moon, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, and Winnie the Pooh – even some historical editions of them. And plenty of fresh copies of the latest books, for everyone wants to meet the kid who lives in the house where trains stop, in Robert Munsch’s Blackberry Subway Jam.

Somewhere in this heaven for imps there would, of course, be a corner for grown-ups, sort of an inverse to the ballroom for kids at Ikea. Over here, to keep them busy, there’d be CD-ROM drives for browsing, and maybe a link-up to the Toronto Free-Net. And over there, a collection of science fiction.

This all sounds like fiction, and surely is a childish fantasy at a time when elected officials insist nothing public – and there are few things more public than a library – is worth investing in. But it’s all coming true, right down to the griffins by sculptor Ludzer Vandermolen over at 239 College St.

That’s where, at the corner of Huron Street, the new “children’s branch” of the Toronto Public Library opens this month. In fact, the new Lillian H. Smith Branch, named for the beloved librarian who organized Canada’s first library for children, is a library for everyone. Its heart will be children’s books, including the famous Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books. But there will also be, among other things, a reference department, a Chinese collection, and meeting rooms for folks who’d rather chat than read.

I also believe there is, in this building, something less tangible but in the long run even more valuable than well bound volumes and high-powered computers: faith. Not the religious kind, but faith in the future of the city, its neighbourhoods, its people and their public spirit. Standing on College Street, on the opposite corner from the new building, its confidence – ultimately our confidence in ourselves, for we built and own it – positively jumps out at you.

Part of the excitement comes from the design by architect Philip H. Carter, which fittingly for a library draws much from history, lore, and tradition. The griffin, for instance, is the mythological half-eagle half-lion who guarded the gold of the Hyperboreans – in Greek mythology a northern people who were blessed with happiness.

Such creatures will, I am sure, print their images on all young minds that pass our way, irresistible invitations to come and explore the treasures within. “When I was a kid,” they will remember to their own children (and one hopes those children to theirs), going to the library was an event.

Alluring mystery and fantasy notwithstanding, attention has also been paid to giving 239 College St. qualities that are familiar and comforting. Substantialness is one; this is not a giant building by any means, but from any point of view on the sidewalk or across the street it sits like a pointed rock on its stone foundation, with walls that look three feet thick. These walls are fresh of finish (brick, fancifully laid, for example into a ribbon of black diamonds near the roof line, or the great Sullivanesque entrance arch within which the griffins perch), but the effect is classical, and its message, reinforced by pigeon droppings already accumulating on the wide stone windowsills, is performance.

All this brings back memories of the libraries many of us knew in our own youth – those huge, classically-styled Carnegie palaces that dotted cityscapes from Ottawa to San Francisco, or even Toronto’s old central library, which stands across College Street serving as the University of Toronto Bookstore.

Should the griffins let you pass, you’ll step further into the past in the foyer, with its soft light (from one of those hanging bowls of white glass), walls of polished brown marble, and bronze doors (watch your fingers everyone) that are not polished bright but burnished brown as though many a hardcover has already passed this way.

Spanking new, yet familiar too, will be the oak reading tables and the marching chairs (big enough for two to curl up in), icons whose presence ought to relieve such anxiety as might be transmitted by all high tech electronic equipment patrons young and old will be figuring out.

Inside and out, a particularly clever feature of this building is the way ventilation grates have been made into design elements, doing the building’s heating, cooling, and breathing from finely finished strips of metal in one place, great round medallions at another.

Not as satisfying is the dark slate floor in the foyer and round atrium, and wall-to-wall carpet (why not rugs?). These elements seem incongruously dull, dated, and ephemeral in a building so potentially timeless. So do the false ceilings and their fluorescent light fixtures; one expects (but probably cannot afford) a more literate execution, with smooth plaster and softly glowing milk-glass luminaries hanging from chains.

But these faults are mere compared to the larger picture, the appearance of a great urbane public building downtown when many of us were worried about the future of the city. Here is concrete evidence that Toronto lives and thrives yet, and a reason to stick around.

The Lilian H. Smith Branch demonstrates that public gestures undertaken by government agencies for citizens can be grand, beautiful, and inspiring. That’s something we need to see at a time when greed and parsimony, masquerading as business sense and thrift, dominate government policy. Pooh on you, Mike Harris.

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