The Saint John Arts Centre is housed in a building that is a well-known historic landmark in the City of Saint John. Constructed in 1904 with funds provided by the American philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie, the building recently celebrated its 107th birthday. Of more than 2,500 buildings that Andrew Carnegie gave to communities throughout the world to be used as free public libraries, many have been lost to urban renewal throughout North America, and the Carnegie Building in Saint John is believed to be one of only a handful left in Canada outside of Ontario.
The building was constructed in the Beaux-Arts style from plans drawn by local architect, G. Ernest Fairweather. The masonry work was done by Robert Maxwell, a Saint John City alderman who went on to become a Member of the Legislative Assembly of the Province of New Brunswick. An intricate stained glass skylight was designed by Frank Reardon of Halifax, N.S. and after being hidden by a dropped ceiling for several years was rediscovered, removed, cleaned, and restored to its rightful dramatic setting over the rotunda-style foyer in 1985. The original mosaic floor in the foyer was created with tiles imported from the Minton Hollins china works in England and laid in a beautifully elaborate pattern.
Contemporary additions to the building include a mural of Delancey’s Brigade painted with historical accuracy by internationally renowned Saint John artist, Fred Ross; a Bicentennial Quilt hand embroidered by local craftspeople Myrna London and Donna Holland illustrating 200 years of women’s fashions; and two stained glass windows designed by Douglas McKiel and crafted by Frans Cuppens commemorating the Saint John Bicentennial and the Canada Summer Games of 1985.
Although alterations to the interior of the building were necessary to provide a venue for visual art exhibits, care was taken to maintain its architectural beauty by preserving as much of the original carved oak woodwork and fixtures as possible. The acoustics in the renovated gallery spaces have been found to be excellent for concerts and recitals.
The Saint John Arts Centre looks forward to presenting the community with art, music, literature, and cultural events set in the background of this beautiful heritage building.
Andrew Carnegie, Benefactor
The Carnegie Building, opened in 1904, was once the home of the Saint John Free Public Library that was established in 1883. It was constructed with the help of a $50,000 grant from Scottish-American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.
Andrew Carnegie c. 1900.
Born in 1835 at Dumfermline, Scotland, Andrew Carnegie immigrated to the United States with is parents in 1848. He became involved in the oil business and that is where he made his first fortune. However, he believed in using his money to help others and said he would never take a personal salary of over $50,000 a year—still a considerable sum in the late 1800s. He found Carnegie Steel Company in 1892 and sold it in 1901 to J.P. Morgan of US Steel for $490 million, leaving Carnegie’s net worth at $475 million ($297.8 billion today). He is considered the second richest man ever, following only John D. Rockefeller.
After his retirement from the steel industry in 1901, Carnegie devoted the rest of his life, and much of his money, to philanthropic efforts. Among those efforts was the building and establishment of public libraries.
The Saint John Free Public Library
The existing Saint John Free Public Library, of 14,000 books, had been using inadequate rental space since its incorporation in 1883 (first in a room above the City Market facing Charlotte Street, and then in the Masonic Hall on Germain Street). Saint John Mayor Dr John Waterhouse Daniel had heard of Carnegie’s generous donations to libraries across Canada and the United States and wrote to him personally at Skibo Castle in Ardgay, Scotland. The Mayor explained that the city was going through financial troubles because of the decline in shipbuilding and, because of the city’s dependence on lumber exports and manufacturing, they had just spent three quarters of a million dollars expanding the Port. The City needed financial help to build a library.
The Saint John Daily Telegraph announces the library’s opening. Click the image for a transcript.
A response from Carnegie’s secretary came saying that he would fund up to ten times the amount the city was willing to pledge in annual support, provided that the city find a suitable site and guarantee that City Council, or a Library Association under its control, would maintain the library. Council accepted the proposal and a location on Hazen Avenue was found. A design competition was launched in July 1902; five entries came from American architects, eight from Canadians outside New Brunswick and four from local architects. In the end, the selection committee narrowed the field to two entries: G. Ernest Fairweather of Saint John, and Copeland and Dole from New York. The major criticism of the New York entry was that it proposed the building be built of white limestone in a city known for its sooty chimneys. Ultimately, Fairweather’s design was approved pleasing many people who thought that the local entry should win. Of the 125 libraries that Carnegie built in Canada, the Saint John Free Public Library was the only one built east of Ottawa.
A Beaux-Arts Masterpiece
The Carnegie Building is constructed in the Beaux-Arts style that was popular from the 1880s through the 1920s. It was the style of choice of many Canadian buildings built during this time including all three Prairie Provinces’ legislative buildings, Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre (1906) and Union Station (1913).
[The reading room, now the Frazee Gallery.]
Upon entering the building there is a prominent set of stone stairs. These stairs are characteristic of Carnegie libraries as they symbolize his belief that a person would be elevated by learning. Similarly, above the front door to is a lamp that is meant as a symbol of enlightenment.
The building opened to the public on November 16, 1904 with no formal ceremony. The Library Commissioners wanted to “expedite matters” matters as much as they could, even though the children’s room was not yet finished and there were still some shelves missing. The library featured general reading rooms on the right (now Frazee Gallery) and a children’s room and reference library on the left (now City Gallery). One of the most impressive features of the building today is the Rotunda, which is magnificently coloured; however it was barely mentioned in 1904.
Aitken Bicentennial Exhibition Centre
ABEC class visit to the ever-popular ScienceScape. Lakefield Elementary School, Mrs Rector’s class, 1993.
The Carnegie Building operated as the Saint John Free Public Library from 1904-1983 when the library was moved to the new Market Square complex. In that same year, the building was turned over to the City of Saint John. As a project to celebrate the bicentennial of the city, the building was refurbished with the help of a million dollar grant from Lady Violet Aitken (widow of Sir Maxwell Aitken, the son of Lord Beaverbrook) and the Canadian Beaverbrook Foundation. The new facility opened in May 1985 as the Aitken Bicentennial Exhibition Centre (ABEC). It became a popular destination for families and school groups to enjoy the busy schedule of exhibits and special events. The ABEC had several very popular and interesting exhibits including a talking robot, a miniature version of the CanadArm, and a skeleton on a bicycle. One of the permanent exhibits was the ScienceScape (held in what is now Frazee Gallery), which was the only interactive science exhibit in Atlantic Canada.
The ABEC presented a mix of art and science exhibits (here, the Canadian Space Agency.)
In the autumn of 2001, funding to the ABEC was cut due to budget restraints and the Board of Directors had no choice but to close its doors. A year later a group of volunteers asked the City of Saint John to reopen the building for one year, changing the name to the Saint John Arts Centre. Consent was granted and in 2003 consent was granted for another year. In 2004 the Saint John Arts Centre’s mandate was extended to a four-year period.
Saint John Arts Centre
The Carnegie Building is still home to the Saint John Arts Centre, a multidisciplinary venue, dedicated to serving the community through arts, educational and cultural programming that is accessible to all. The Saint John Arts Centre is host to many workshops, artist talks and art classes as well as maintaining an active schedule of art exhibits in its galleries. The Saint John Arts Centre is also host to cultural events such as concerts and plays, as well as private fundraisers for many different charities.