The Building: Winnipeg’s Cornish Library gets an inviting makeover

The library’s multi-million-dollar addition comes with a message: All are welcome 
Liza Agrba 
updated library

At 107 years old, Winnipeg’s Cornish Library has changed with the times—over and over again. Its basement, which once hosted rousing lectures by Canadian activist Nellie McClung, now shelves Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists. The heritage building bridges the gap between two very different Winnipegs. It’s located just inside the ornamental iron-and-stone gates of Armstrong’s Point, a placid residential neighbourhood complete with million-dollar, manor-style homes. And just north, unhoused people sleep rough under the Maryland Bridge, a major commuter route along the Assiniboine River.

In 2015, hoping to make the Cornish more inviting, the city of Winnipeg commissioned Public City Architecture, a local firm, to reimagine it. “We decided to make the project about opening the library to the communities around it,” says Peter Sampson, Public City’s principal architect. “Libraries have changed a lot in the last 10 or 20 years—they’re no longer just palaces for old books.” The Cornish, in fact, is known to some of its neighbours as “the living room.”

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On the accessibility front, Public City added a platform lift and a new, gradually sloping walkway to the existing entryway. The library’s century-old bones got some carefully refinished oak panelling, asbestos removal—surgical and extensive, given the building’s age—and generous coats of new burgundy paint on its original wainscotting to match archival photos unearthed by Heritage Winnipeg.

The jewel of the Cornish’s $2.5-million, multi-year makeover is its extension: clad in floor-to-ceiling oak, and supported by a solitary but heavy-duty concrete column, the space is made to house community shindigs and extra reading room, and to host rotating exhibitions by area artists. (The Cornish’s first in-house display is a floral piece by Winnipeg’s Michael Dumontier.) Wrapped in glass, the walls of the addition occasionally seem to disappear altogether. “In certain types of light, it’s hard to find the edges,” Sampson says.

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Exterior restorations included preserving the existing outdoor faucet (which provides potable water for cooking and drinking) and dismantling the long-standing chain-link fence that held northern community members, symbolically at least, at bay. Public City also planted a slew of new saplings to line the limestone patio, but left a clear sightline into the library’s public garden—and the new, welcoming reading nook within. 

Limestone slabs, sourced from quarries north of Winnipeg and weighing in at 3,500 pounds each, line the exterior of the Cornish’s addition to form a seating area. Public City planted larch saplings around the perimeter, creating a reading room in the forest.

Four Flowers, a permanent artwork made by local artist Michael Dumontier, is designed to look like a vase. It’s also a continuation of the single concrete column that supports the addition. Its flowers, made of steel, sway along with fluctuations in the air.

The Cornish’s children’s reading room was outfitted with new, concealed heating elements, recycled carpet tile and refinished original oak woodwork in the panels, columns and bookshelves. The colourful plastic dogs, pops of whimsy added later by the library, are stools.

This article appears in print in the February 2023 issue of Maclean’s magazine. Buy the issue for $9.99 or better yet, subscribe to the monthly print magazine for just $39.99.