Beauty In Contrast: Hillsburgh Public Library

+VG Architects’ wraps a new addition around a 19th-century farmhouse.

Google “Hillsburgh, Ontario” and an image of the new public library, Hillsburgh’s pride, appears next to the map on the search page. The project by The Ventin Group Architects Ltd. (+VG) wraps a new structure, sited to maximize views of the nearby mill pond, around the renovated existing 1892 homestead. The facility boasts all the amenities of a fully accessible modern library while maintaining the historical significance of the rural property.

“The stellar new Hillsburgh library has been very well received by the community; it has become an instant and well-used community hub,” says the client, Murray McCabe, Chief Librarian, County of Wellington, for whom +VG also created public libraries for Aboyne (Fergus), Mount Forest, Drayton and Arthur.

View of the library from the west. In the summer, chairs are set up on the deck and adjacent lawn for concerts and shows.

The 9,900-sq.-ft. project opened on budget ($7 million) and quickly attained Emerald status, the highest level of certification in the county’s Green Legacy Building Standards program. The project also picked up the Gordon Couling Restoration Award from the Guelph and Wellington Branch of the Architectural Conservancy Ontario and the Wellington County Historical Society, which recognizes the exemplary restoration or adaptive reuse of a significant heritage structure in Wellington County.

+VG’s approach to adaptive reuse combines heritage structures with a new, frankly contemporary, rather than faux-old, build. “This library continues the Ventin Group tradition of not making a museum of the old building, but respecting it and keeping its cool features while joining it to a totally different modern component,” says Paul Sapounzi, the library’s architect and +VG Managing Partner.

“The existing farmhouse is one of the best examples of a heritage southwestern Ontario rural residence,” he says. “The farmhouse enhances the library in a profound way through its connection to the community. That connection has always been prominent.”

Views entering and exiting the portal dividing the children’s area and corridor. Lime-green stripes in the carpet tile are an intuitive wayfinding device to the children’s area.

The park-like property had been part of the historic Gooderham and Worts distillery empire. However, the county purchased the property, in 2015, because of another connection to the community: about 80 metres (260 feet) south of the library stands a key access point along the 47-kilometre (29 mile) Elora to Cataract trailway, part of the popular Grand River Conservation Authority trail system. Equidistant from the library to the west, is the small lake known as the Mill Pond.

“We didn’t demolish the old house. Instead, we appreciate and celebrate the heritage part of the building. What was the exterior brickwork façade, with its windows and doorways intact, has become an interior space. Then, rather than completely replicating and turning everything into a ‘new old’ heritage building, we found beauty in the contrast between the old and new,” says Natasha Klomp, lead interior designer for the project.

The main reading room was sited to give generous views of the parklike property with its windmill, mill pond and access point to the Grand River Conservation Authority trail system. Bookshelves step down in height to maintain sightlines out.

They carry on a yin-and-yang conversation. “The farmhouse is all about Victorian attitudes to privacy, with numerous walls and small door and window openings,” says Sapounzi. “The new addition deconstructs that attitude. With its transparency and accessibility, it’s the opposite.”

“What’s unusual about this project,” Klomp adds, “is not only combining the heritage with the new, but also the amazing location the building sits on. Being surrounded by grass, trees and overlooking water engulfs users in nature while they are reading or studying. Murray McCabe was determined to present the outdoor nature aspect within the interior environment. I believe we were quite successful with this.” It was he who commissioned the interior’s principal accent piece, the canoe mural. He also specified that the actual northwest Ontario canoe perched above the mural should hang midway up the wall to bring down the sightlines in the tall space.

Sapounzi explains that enjoying the lake as the anchor feature of the site was the guiding principle behind the library’s design. “Where the addition was sited, its orientation and height and the design of the windows were all aimed at giving the most picturesque views of the lake and trail system. We went to great lengths to achieve it.

“We put fill in the ground and lifted the library so that it could frame the lake. The library had to be a two-storey building to lift the main reading room high enough to get lake views without including too much of the foreground; you feel like you’re perched up there. We wanted the main reading room to be the best room in that community, and it is.”

In addition to admiring the view, users can enjoy the lake in a more direct, interactive way by checking out a fishing rod from the rack of rods near the children’s area. After hours, the main reading room can be easily reconfigured, thanks to its mobile bookshelves, as an event space. On the lower level, a multipurpose room, commercial kitchen and shaded concrete deck are available for rent.

The fishing-rod station adjoining the computer desks. Barcode labels affixed to the reel bodies enable the rods to be checked out; users can fish at the nearby mill pond.

+VG interior designer Nancy Lemmon recalls that one goal of the main reading room’s design was “to bring in as much daylight as possible to brighten up the space.” To that end, the budget’s costliest item was the floor-to-ceiling windows.

Photo credit. David Lasker Photography