Article by Jules Torti

The Social and Architectural Restoration of Galt’s Old Post Office

OFFEE HOUSES AND LIBRARIES have long been gathering grounds for community movers and shakers. Acting as social hubs, a hotbed for literary giants and innovation, it makes sense that they should merge. The juxtapositions between coffee houses and libraries are blurring, especially in Cambridge, Ontario, where the Idea Exchange proposes a shift in tradition as the modern library shelves the stuffy, whispers-only-please atmosphere of yore. Current programming includes ukulele jams, knitting nights, a cookbook club, an NFB Film Club, and live painting competitions. The Friday Night Art Live series is licensed—yes, you can even drink beer in the library now.

Embracing both social and architectural restoration, the Idea Exchange is the tour de force behind the 2017 opening of the nation’s first totally digital library on the banks of the Grand River in this southwestern Ontario city. The stately 1885 Galt Customs House and Post Office, at 12 ½ Water Street, was purchased from Pearle Hospitality (formerly the Landmark Group) by the City of Cambridge four years ago for $950,000. Designed by Canadian architect Thomas Fuller (1823-1898), whose portfolio included Ottawa’s Parliament buildings, this 19th-century Italianate building will become a dynamic digital literacy landmark. As Rosemary Bonanno, president-elect of the Canadian Library Association, told the Canadian Press, “We have to be relevant to the people in our community. We have to embrace the change, and those who don’t will be left behind.”

When Venice’s first coffee house opened in 1683 in response to the demand for the elixir that was both medicinal and social, it “quickly became synonymous with relaxed companionship, animated conversation, and tasty food,” as author Mark Pendergrast explained in his book Beyond Fair Trade. By 1700, there were 2,000 coffee houses in London alone, each defined by a niche clientele (actors, sailors, writers, businessmen). Known for idea generation, networking, and stimulating conversation, coffee houses were soon referred to as “penny universities.” An education could be launched with the price of a simple cup of coffee. The Idea Exchange wants to prove that patrons, books, coffee, and creative thinking can exist and mingle under the same roof.

First posted for sale for $1.4 million in 2011, Rick Lewis, a sales representative for Century 21 Watson Realty called the post office the “shock and awe building. When we’re outside, it’s the awe. Then you open the door and it’s the shock.” Insert 8,000 square feet of debris, broken stained glass windows, wood rot, plaster rubble, and a leaking slate mansard roof. But, look at that clock tower! The pink and grey rock-faced granite building, which functioned as a postal outlet until 1936, received heritage designation from the City of Cambridge in 1982 and, in the same year, was granted the status of a National Historic Site.

The Landmark Group purchased the vacant building in 2007 with the intention of establishing an upscale dining venue on the east side of the river, but this fell by the wayside when Landmark snapped up the former Riverbank Mill (now The Cambridge Mill) at Parkhill and Water streets, sinking $8 million into renovations there instead.

As the local community watches with bated breath, the building will now be resuscitated again. From a parole board office, to the Galt Little Theatre, to the Reid Gallery, and the notorious Fiddler’s Green Irish Pub, it’s time for a reinvention. Restoration of the property began in November, 2015, and the Cambridge Municipal Heritage Advisory Committee Chair John Oldfield is cheerleading the progress. “The only way to secure the future of a heritage building is to create a space for living or working. If changes have to be made to prevent it from being slated for demolition, we’re open to suggestions. Ideally, we’d like to save it as first constructed or be shown a proposal with its essence intact, but still financially viable. We understand buildings have to be adapted for current use. A grist mill built to function as a grist mill in the 1800s will need changes to operate as a restaurant.”

Built by Michael A. Piggot, the stone behemoth is one of a few grand dames still standing in Ontario. Fuller and Piggot’s post office will soon be a dramatic amalgamation of the past, present, and future. The projected $13-million-dollar restoration has had unexpected complications. The Grand River Conservation Authority insisted on floodproofing the building, which meant raising the main floor, and contaminated soil was discovered on the site, requiring costly removal. There was also concern over wood damage and insulation in the attic space. Despite a heritage designation only being applicable to the exterior, Oldfield says all decorative elements will be protected, inside and out— from the tessellated marble floors to the massive chimney stack. “The exterior will be restored 360 degrees, with the greater challenge of meeting the building code. Provincial mandates require two exits on every floor and the accessibility act requires elevator service to all levels.”

With hopes of LEED gold certification, there’s also talk of a future green roof, common garden, and teaching kitchen. The digital library will include a Maker Lab—touted on the Idea Exchange website as a “mash-up of 19th-century structural support columns and high tech gear”—where you can generate your own iPod amplifier on a 3D printer. On the Teen Space level, the creative juice can be put in a Vitamix blender with Red Bull. You can learn how to code, record music, play video games, or be part of the black box theatre. In the Children’s Discovery Centre, kids can read Alligator Pie on a tablet or build a simple robot with a Raspberry Pi single board computer.

The 1,800-square-foot restaurant and reading room level is all about the Wi-Fi, high-octane coffee, and kicking back with a Kindle or a paperback. Monigram Coffee Roasters are co-branding with the library and will supply the buzz behind the 40-seat restaurant. The library space will be a satellite location to Monigram Coffee Roasters’ warehouse conversion in the parking lot just 100 steps east on Ainslie street. The post office’s two elevations, one facing the street and the other overlooking the river, make an imposing statement. The architectural sophistication of the design can be seen in a parapet roof-line, heavy corbelling under the eaves, and in the medieval motif visible in the diamond pattern of stonework. The Cambridge digital library will have its own cantilever three metres over the flood retaining wall, angling in upstream.

The Romanesque round-arched side entrance and richly textured rusticated frontage suggest, “If these walls could talk.” And talk they do—if you follow interpreter Joleen Taylor on the annual Ghost Walk that she conducts from the historic McDougall Cottage at Halloween, you will hear about the ghost of Emily and the tragic ending to her affair with the postmaster in the clock tower.

Certainly, the shelf life of this local library won’t be facing expiration any time soon.

In grade five, writer Jules Torti buried three overdue library books by the pond in her backyard and the guilt remains.

The old post office building in
Cambridge (Galt), Ontario, will
be transformed into the Idea
Exchange, a modern library hub.
Photograph: Jules Torti

Above, left
The old post office building,
Galt, Ontario
Photograph: Jules Torti

Above, right
The clock tower of Galt’s old post
office building
Photograph: Jules Torti