This was the first example of Modernist architecture in the Vancouver Public Library system and has been serving the Collingwood community for 60 years. Too many tasteless exterior and interior changes as well as poor maintenance, have marred the open and inviting character of this unique architectural landmark. Its long-term future is uncertain.
What is the library threatened?
Despite this illustrious history, there are no guarantees that this Modernist East Vancouver landmark will be protected.
The Vancouver Public Library’s recent maintenance on the building has diminished its heritage values and the library does not seem interested in having this building included on the City of Vancouver’s Heritage Register.
A comparison of early photos of the Collingwood Branch with the current condition of the building shows that successive alterations have not respected its architectural status.
Lurid blue paint has been slapped on the exterior siding. Other changes that have marred the building include replacing the floor-to-ceiling glazing beside the entrance with metal siding. This has removed the essential transparency between inside and outside.
The tree beside the entrance has been replaced with a telephone booth leaning against the stone feature wall, while the wood screen beside this wall is gone, opening up an unnecessary view of the service entrance.
During Vancouver’s civic strike in 2007, a vehicle crashed into the building, causing damage to a brick wall. Three years later, the damage to the brick-work remains and can still be seen beside the main entrance.
When air conditioning was installed, the exposed ductwork on the interior was inserted with little attention to its impact on the building. The standard, low-budget, boxy roof-top cooling units are clearly visible; their impact could be minimized with a suitably designed roof-top screen.
Why is the Collingwood Branch Library significant?
Designed by local architects Harold Semmens and Douglas Simpson, this striking new building opened in July 1951.
It embodied the Vancouver Public Library’s new approach of making library services more accessible, by opening more community branches. These were intended to be modern, open, inviting structures in contrast to the closed, intimidating style of some older branches like the Carnegie Library at Hastings and Main.
The design of the Collingwood branch was entirely contemporary.
According to one source, shortly after its grand opening, the branch recorded the highest circulation of children’s books of any branch in the Vancouver Public Library system. The architects had succeeded in creating an open and approachable civic building.
Semmens and Simpson went on to design the Library’s main branch at Burrard and Robson Streets in 1953-57.
The design of the Collingwood Branch reflects the spirit and work of famous 20th Century architects. The original glass expanse at the front alluded to Mies van der Rohe, the use of stone a reference to Marcel Breuer, and the low ceiling at the entrance and the emphatic horizontal lines show the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Architect Douglas Simpson studied under Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin West in Arizona, and was clearly influenced by this experience. Due to its “effective scaling and proportioning,” the building presented a welcoming and accessible face to the local community.
Heritage Vancouver’s Position
Heritage Vancouver strongly supports the Collingwood community’s call for the City and the Library Board to restore the Collingwood Branch in 2011, 60 years after the opening of this fine Modernist landmark.
Heritage Vancouver encourages the Vancouver Public Library to prepare a Statement of Significance for the Collingwood Library. This would allow the important features of the building to be identified and the heritage character of the building to be evaluated.
Once this is completed we urge the Vancouver Public Library Board to fulfill its role as heritage stewards of this remarkable building, and apply to have the Library included on the City of Vancouver’s Heritage Register as a Modern Landmark.
The Works of Douglas Colborne Simpson (Architect)
By Gregg Simpson
The Collingwood Branch Library
By John Mendoza, the Collingwood/Renfrew Times, Vancouver, September 2010
Renfrew-Collingwood’s Humble Historic Landmark (PDF, 2.0Mb)
By John Medoza; Newsletter, Renfrew-Collingwood Community News; October 2010; pages 10 & 11