Restorative Space: John Muir Library, Windsor, Ontario

A historic Fire Hall and Stable are transformed into Windsor, Ontario’s newest library.

PROJECT Windsor Public Library—John Muir Branch, Windsor, Ontario

ARCHITECT studio g+G inc.

PHOTOS Jason Grossi

The adaptive reuse included the transformation of the fire hall’s hose tower into a glass lantern lookout.

Established in 1797, Olde Sandwich Towne is located on the west side of Windsor, and is home to some of Ontario’s oldest heritage buildings. One of those gems is the 1921 Windsor Fire Hall No. 6, and its adjoining mid-nineteenth-century stable—one of few to survive from the era when fire engines were pulled by horses. In 2016, the City of Windsor and Windsor Public Library Board purchased both buildings, aiming to adaptively reuse them for a new library space.

For locals, the resulting John Muir Branch is more than a useful community amenity, and a sensitive piece of heritage restoration—it’s a work of art in itself.

A suspended bridge links to the former horse stable and negotiates a change in level between the two historic buildings.

The project was designed by architect Jason Grossi of Studio g+G and completed by Intrepid General Limited contractors. The contractors lived up to their name, as the project proved complex from the start. The sandy soil of the building site haunted the team throughout the project, requiring foundation underpinning and shoring to support a new elevator. The disparate floor elevations of the fire hall and stable also created challenges: in the contemporary addition that links the two historic structures, a suspended walkway on a slight incline connects one building’s upper floor to the other.

The stable was clad with custom fabricated white cedar clapboard and treated with limewash; the addition is clad with lead-coated flat seam copper.

Connections to local heritage pervade the project. In front, a ramp and piazza are paved with cobbles from the original entrance of the Ambassador Bridge joining Windsor and Detroit. The brickwork on the exterior walls was preserved; during the reconstruction, sand and aggregates were collected from the site to use in the mortar repointing. Extra Douglas Fir boards were found in the building during renovations, so Grossi used them to clad the interior of the new addition, specifying the same wood type to frame its multi-paned windows. The stable’s original roof was salvaged and restored; the walls were unsalvageable, and were reconstructed with cedar shiplap siding and a limewash finish.

The library’s main space includes a double-height atrium.

Inside the branch, part of the fire hall’s second floor was removed to create an atrium; natural light flows through a generous skylight and windows. Tin tiles—reproduced from originals recovered in the renovation—cover the main room’s ceiling. Salt-and-pepper concrete flooring allows sound to travel through this space, one of several areas designed to have specific acoustic qualities by Grossi, who has a parallel career as a composer and classical guitarist. Sounds are more muted in the front section of the library, ideal for library users looking for a quieter library experience. Mobile furniture—from seating to the circulation desk—provides opportunities for performances and other community programs. Most of the collection is housed in shelf-lined walls and stacks on the first floor of the contemporary addition, with the suspended walkway dancing overhead.

Bespoke shelves line the walls of the new addition linking the fire hall to the stable.

On the second floor, visitors can find the non-fiction and young adult collections, as well as a charred, exposed wooden beam across the ceiling—a relic from a 1940 fire that struck when the firefighters were out responding to a call and destroyed most of the second floor. Visitors can also walk up another flight to the tower where firehoses were once hung to dry, now home to a colourful beacon light and lookout.

Mobile furniture has helped the library adapt the space to distancing needs during the pandemic, and will enable the space to be cleared for larger gatherings and special events.

Upon opening in the fall of 2019, the branch quickly became a favourite meeting place for the community, and the unique programs created by library staff were widely successful. Six months later, this momentum halted as the world locked down. When the branches in the Windsor Public Library system reopened with limited services, the open-concept, flexible design of the John Muir Branch allowed for easier physical distancing within the branch. As the project team had hoped, the building continues to adapt to changing user needs—both long- and short-term.

Rebekah Mayer (MLIS) is a public service librarian at Windsor Public Library’s downtown branch.

CLIENT City of Windsor / Windsor Public Library | ARCHITECT TEAM Jason Grossi | STRUCTURAL Haddad Morgan and Associates Ltd. | MECHANICAL/ ELECTRICAL Stantec Consulting | LANDSCAPE Bezair and White | INTERIORS studio g+G inc.| CONTRACTOR Intrepid General Limited | AREA 687 m2 | BUDGET $4.6 M | COMPLETION 2020