105 Year-Old Riverdale Library (1910)

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Like the pigeon above, I have always found Riverdale Library’s red-brick solidity a restful place to perch.

On my first visit, I appreciated the heavy wooden doors that opened to the spaciousness of the lobby, inviting patrons to breathe freely. A soaring white ceiling, skylight, columns, and wide aisles all worked together to create a sense of freedom and possibility.

I felt my spirits revive when I gazed at the skylight of this Georgian Revival edifice, prompting me to send a silent message of thanks skyward to Andrew Carnegie. As recorded in A Century of Service: Toronto Public Library 1883-1983, Carnegie provided the initial funding for this library and three others in 1903 (Penman, 16). Ultimately, he would finance ten TPL branches.

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My instinctive window-seat antennae led me to the northeast side of the library, where I found a wide curving bench. This lovely piece of reading furniture was an integral part of the children’s area, which also boasted a double-sided hearth and a Children’s Program Room with a matching window seat on the west wall.

When I went inside the program room, I found a puppet theatre and a leafless tree with a sign that read “Riverdale Tree: Do Not Move.” Five years later, someone must have disobeyed the note, for the tree had been moved to the opposite side of the wing. Not only had it travelled, but it was now gussied up with leaves, a salamander, and bedazzled fruit.

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Back in the main section of the children’s wing, I noticed a substantial pirate ship on top of a central shelf and a Paddington Bear high overhead. Paddington was secured to a chair swing with a massive quantity of packing tape. Were staff concerned that the bear would fall onto the hapless heads of readers below? Lawsuits have sprouted over less.

The central section of Riverdale contained a corner reserved for teens to flop on some pink and yellow cushions, a computer bay, and magazine racks. Along the curved west wall, rows of tall shelves fanned out in a radial pattern.

Following the curve to the southwest corner, I saw a sign which said “Quiet Community Room.” I opened the door and discovered that it wasn’t quiet at all in there. About ten women were sitting at various tables with big thermoses and some snacks. When a couple of them gave me the half-smile of “Do we know you? What are you doing here?”, I realized that I was disturbing their morning study break. I apologized to the teacher and retreated from what appeared to be an ESL class, judging from the English vocabulary words written on the flip-chart.

To support the class and other learners, a strong ESL collection was only a few strides away from the classroom. There was also a small Vietnamese holding and a much larger one that offered Chinese fiction, non-fiction, DVD’s, and more. On my 2015 visit, I enjoyed the lobby display in honour of Chinese New Year, especially the colourful card, book covers, and flowers.

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From the multilingual bookcases against the south wall, I moved further into the interior and sat down between two high shelves. With my head resting just below a wooden windowsill, I surveyed the materials available in my temporary domain: French dictionaries, self-help books, SAT preparation texts, mathematics books, and fashion guides. I inhabited my bookish retreat for several minutes, leafing through some sale magazines and pausing to admire how vast the overhead space appeared from floor-level.

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After getting to my feet, I returned to the window seat to experience it in more depth. I took off my shoes, nestled against the wall where it formed a right angle with the seat, and rested my left arm on the upper ledge. It was the perfect place to write in my journal.I felt very fortunate to inhabit a quiet corner of this beautiful old library, enjoying the trees outside as well as the rumble of passing streetcars on Broadview Avenue. I also felt connected to the lucky Torontonians of the early 20th century who welcomed Riverdale Library into their city and their hearts.

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