THEN: 1951 (Rotunda Bestsellers)
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In the Aitken Rotunda, stand in front of our main desk and you’ll see a familiar sight – the original circulation desk of the Saint John Free Public Library whose replica is at your back. The front entryway and the current women’s washroom (then an office!) are at left and centre in the background, as is the doorway into the current City Gallery on the right.
Aside from the ladies’ fashions, the ‘Bestsellers’ post board on the pillar holds the key to the date this photo was taken; titles of popular novels of the day, including The Golden Exile, Sheep Rock, The Hayvens of Demaret and
A Woman Called Fancy reveal the year as 1951.
Of note (but barely noticeable, look closely!) in the upper left of the photo is a corner of the ornate fan-shaped stained glass window that once graced the front entryway. To see this stunning work today, visit its current home on the second floor of the ‘new’ (1983) Saint John Free Public Library Main Branch in Market Square – a lovely memento of the 79 years of library history, still overlooking the entryway.
When you Visit SJAC, use your ‘smart’ device to capture QR codes and reveal fun facts and photos of the historic Carnegie Building.
THEN: Pre-1939 (Children’s Library)
In this photo you can see one of the many children’s classes that took place in the Saint John Free Public Library. The room seen in this photo is the original children’s section, now the City Gallery which is a program of Saint John’s Cultural Affairs office and is one of our five gallery spaces. As evidenced by a marking, it was photographed by the prominent Saint John photographers Isaac Erb and his son John Erb, but the exact date of this photo is unknown. We do know that the ‘Isaac Erb and Son’ photography business lasted until John’s death, narrowing the period to pre-1939.
You might have noticed that the room in the photograph looks remarkably different to the room which we have today! The photographer’s view should be roughly the same as yours but there are some very noticeable changes. One of the biggest differences is the large windows lighting the photo are no longer exposed. These windows were covered by white false walls of plywood construction in the conversion of the Library to the Aitken Bicentennial Exhibition Centre in 1983-85. If you look above the white false walls you can see the tops of the window casings. These ‘new’ walls are very important, they make it possible to control the lighting in the galleries as well as to protect the original walls of this historic Carnegie building when hanging shows.
Reference Library (Students researching)
As you stand in the small room of the City Gallery (facing the Rotunda) you will be standing in what was once the reference section, and later an office in the Saint John Free Public Library. The shelves upon shelves of reference books pictured in the photo are now replaced with a pass-through leading into the larger room of the City Gallery. In the library days, the larger room of the City Gallery began as the children’s section, and then the reference section of the library!
In this photograph you can see students reading intently under their desk lamps. Look to the background and spot the archway entrance into the Frazee Gallery, which was once the library reading room. If you look very closely on the left side of the photograph, an edge of a mantle is showing. This mantle belongs to the original terra cotta fireplace which remains a prominent attraction in the City Gallery space.
Reading Room (Present-day Frazee Gallery)
If you stand near the doorway of the Frazee Gallery facing the fireplace you will be standing in the same spot that this photo was taken. You can really see how much the Arts Centre has changed from its time as Saint John’sFree Public Library (1904-1983). The reading rooms were in what is now named the Frazee Gallery. The room would have been used for anyone who wanted to read in a quiet environment. As you can see in the photo, the room was stocked with newspapers and periodicals for the public to enjoy.
In the distance you may spot the same fireplace which still stands today! Above the fireplace mantle a portrait of Andrew Carnegie is hung. Andrew Carnegie was the initial benefactor who funded the building of the library. The library welcomed its patrons with the same dedication to education and personal betterment that Andrew Carnegie embodied and supported. The Saint John Arts Centre maintains these values of culture, community, and education which is why we are so proud of our vibrant history! Read more about our history here!
Features of the Aitken Rotunda: New and Old
What was once known simply as the library’s lobby is now the Aitken Rotunda, named for Sir Maxwell Aitken in recognition of the significant contribution made to the building. Many of the original features of the building can be seen in this photograph taken (by a very brave photographer) from inside the cupola!
The Rotunda boasts an original mosaic tile floor imported from Minton Hollins Ltd. in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, England, which still survives as part of the Royal Doulton Group. The floor features a Greek key fret pattern along the edges of the Rotunda. This motif is very common in architecture and is said to represent the story of King Minos and the Minotaur. In each corner is a mosaic fleur-de-lis, which, in addition to being a symbol of the French, has many symbolic meanings. It often represents the Virgin Mary and the Holy Trinity, but in this case it likely represents enlightenment.
Above the main reception desk, in the foyer, hangs a new feature of the Carnegie building: Fred Ross’s A Delancey’s Encampment, installed in 1985. This mural represents significant New Brunswick and Canadian history and was commissioned for the bicentennial, to celebrate the 1783 landing in Saint John of the United Empire Loyalists.
Now look up! Perhaps the most astounding feature of the Rotunda, the stained glass skylight is not featured in this photograph but its layout can be seen in the original architectural drawing. The spectacular skylight repeats the classical motifs, including the Greek Key, found in the ceramic floor. The skylight was designed by Frank Reardon of Halifax, Nova Scotia. For many years, this beautiful skylight was not visible. In order to save money in heating, a dropped ceiling was installed and the skylight was removed and put in storage until it was rediscovered in the 1960s. The skylight was then re-installed and is now a favourite feature amongst visitors to the Arts Centre!
An Inside View
An Inside View of the Cupola
Perhaps the most recognizable feature of the building is the copper cupola. In architecture, a cupola is a small dome-like structure on the top of a building. It is often used to provide a lookout or to admit light and air into a building. Our cupola provides ample light throughout the day to illuminate the gorgeous stained glass skylight which makes up the floor of the cupola. As you can see in the photo, several windows encircle the dome providing sunlight during the day while a new large electric light assists at night.
The word Cupola is derived from Italian. The lower Latin cupula means a small cup. This indicates a vault resembling an upside down cup. The cupola developed as an improvement from the Oculus during the Renaissance Period. The cupola was created to be more weatherproof than its predecessor and thus more fitting to northern climates.
The cupola also has a layer of green patina (oxidization) on its surface from being exposed to the elements. This aesthetically pleasing oxidization also helps protects the cupola from any further corrosion.
The next time you are outside the Arts Centre, keep your eye out for the cupola and you might see the distinct lotus blossom which sits at its very top.