The making of the Alice Munro Library ‘From abandoned building to heritage library’

WINGHAM – The Wingham and Area Historical Society and the Alice Munro Library hosted two speakers at the April 10 regular meeting of the historical society to share some exciting information about the history of the Alice Munro Library.

Murray Simpson and John Rutledge, the speakers, are both well-known construction and architectural professionals who have worked on many projects in the North Huron area, including the Alice Munro Library.

Opening remarks by Rutledge covered how Chris Borgal Architect and Rutledge rehabilitated Wingham’s original 1874 Temperance Hall into a new library facility.

Rutledge believed the building had been empty for nearly 30 years before the library project, although it had several different lives before that.

“It was originally in the Temperance Hall, which was somewhere that way,” Rutledge laughed, pointing out one of the windows, “closer towards lower town, and it was moved to here. Now when it was moved, I’m not sure. It might have even been moved before the First World War.”

According to the historical plaque outside the library, the building was constructed in 1863 by the trustees of S.S. No. 11 Turnberry Township on the town plot common at the S.W. corner of John and Leopold Streets and served as Wingham’s first public school.

After the incorporation of the Village of Wingham in 1874 and in 1878, a new school was built; the vacated school was moved to Market Square, where the Armory used to be and was used as a village hall. That location is now a temporary parking lot,

In 1891, once the existing town hall was completed, the building was sold to the Wingham Temperence Hall Co. Ltd. and moved to its current location.

For 85 years, from 1900 to 1985, the building changed hands many times and had several uses, including the Armour Produce Company until 1910, the William Davies Co. Ltd. until 1921 when the Whyte Packing Co. Ltd. took it over, then sold again three more times until the town of Wingham purchased it in 1985.

In 1986, the building was declared a heritage property; the restoration began. With the addition on the south side, it became Wingham’s first free-standing library and commenced services in December 1987.

Continuing to describe the building, Rutledge said, “It is a load-bearing double brick building because it’s only one story. And when we got it, it was in really, really bad shape. One of the first things Chris did was to evaluate whether or not we could actually save it.”

Borgal found that the brickwork was in good condition, just dirty, and the mortar joints were in good position, “plumb and true,” said Rutledge. “So, it was a real gut job. So we took the roof off. We took anything from the interior out, we took the windows out. And all we left was the foundation.”

Rutledge said that all that was standing at one point was the brickwork, “which we eventually cleaned and used, and they didn’t need much work other than a good cleaning.”

The faded writing on the front of the building was left as it was, however, as it is a unique, although unintelligible, feature of the historic landmark. “Even when we worked on it years ago, we couldn’t tell what the sign said. And you still can’t, but at least it’s still there.”

Rutledge described the renovation of a library, including preserving original features like the elliptical proscenium arch and the pattern on the ceiling. The ceiling renovation was particularly notable, as it allowed for more effective heating and ventilation, and wallpaper borders created a unique design element.

Rutledge said the windows caused some design issues because a quota of bookshelves needed to be installed, but the windows on the north side were in the way.

“So on the south side, we decided to leave the big windows because that’s a nice light, but on the north side … And if you notice on the interior, there’s three very high transom windows or clerestory windows,” said Rutledge.

Now, those were the same size as the three on this side. But if you go outside and look at the other side, it still looks like they’re there.

“So it was a wee bit of theater, in that we built an insulated wall on the inside. But we left the windows full on the outside. And we block them in with plywood painted black with glass over so that they still shine and they look like windows from the outside on that. Now most people don’t notice it, because you can drive past that and miss it.”

Simpson recalled many of the same memories as Rutledge, adding some information about the basement, saying it needed to be filled in with gravel, which proved somewhat challenging because of the weirdly installed cement walls.

“I remember there was kind of some odd concrete walls in the basement, which didn’t seem to make much sense. In Adam’s (Simpson’s son, who did research on the building), research there it talks about this being an egg place at one time and how they water blasted the eggs, in vats, in the basement,” said Simpson.

“And so then I looked at what water blasting was; it is pickling lime and water. And supposedly the eggs are coated with it and they were supposed to last for 12 -18 months or two years,” Simpson said.

The pair both acknowledged the reusing of many of the original designs of the building, including the tongue and groove wainscotting, much of which was preserved in the original building and reproduced to match in the addition.

Trina Huffman, Alice Munro Library librarian, thanked the gentlemen for their presentation and hard work.

She added that the addition is well used by the community, often booked weekly for events or used daily by library patrons.

The next Wingham and Area Historical Society meeting will be held on May 8 at 2 p.m. at the Alice Munro Library. It will feature John Smith, Al Skelton and Catherine MacDonald, who will present the CKNX story.

Cory Bilyea, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Wingham Advance Times