Mechanics Institute of Montreal – Montreal Then & Now
By Dick Nieuwendyk–mtltimes.ca
The Atwater Library of the Mechanics’ Institute of Montreal is home to the first Mechanics’ Institute in Canada, established in 1828, and the oldest subscription library in Canada, and one of the last in the world. It is the last Mechanics’ Institute building in Canada serving its original purpose. In its function, layout and decorative programme, the library embodies the principles and ideals of the Mechanics’ Institute movement, an English movement of the late 18th century, which grew out of a new concern for adult education and technical training.
The Institute’s mission was to provide craftsmen with low-cost education. During this period in England, the term “mechanic” was associated with the elite of the working class, such as builders, chemists, pharmacists and engineers, but it also came to designate all craftspeople, office employees and workers in technical fields. The educational program called for lectures on the arts and sciences, a reference and lending library, reading rooms, a collection of models and specimens, a design school and a laboratory equipped with the scientific apparatus and instruments required for teaching.
The Library was built by the Mechanics’ Institute of Montreal between 1918 and 1920, almost a century after the organization began. It is a two-storey, Beaux-Arts style building, designed and built by architects Alexander Cowper Hutchison and Alexander Campbell Wood of the firm of Hutchison, Wood & Miller.
Fireproof materials such as stone, brick, concrete, and steel were used in the construction. The use of concrete for the roof slab represented leading-edge technology at the time. The building’s ornamentation is an expression of the nature of the institute, portraying seals, coats of arms and medallions. Its symmetrical interior layout follows Edwardian-Baroque Beaux-Arts principles, with an entrance opening onto a central atrium with a glassed skylight. On the main level are symmetrically placed book stacks and reading rooms, with meeting rooms off a mezzanine above accessed via symmetrically placed staircases.
Today, with its original interior furnishings, fittings and finishes, the building is one of the best preserved of its kind and the last in Canada to house a Mechanics’ Institute.
The Atwater Library of the Mechanics’ Institute of Montreal was designated a national historic site in 2004.
The building is located at 1200 Atwater Avenue, Montréal, facing Cabot Square
(Source: Parks Canada / Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada / Mechanics’ Institute of Montréal Archives, 1920)