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Sunday, October 08, 2023

William Austin Mahoney: A Prolific Canadian Carnegie Library Architect

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Andrew Carnegie began dispensing grants to Ontario libraries. Many ambitious cities and towns submitted a request for assistance. One important requisite that Carnegie demanded was that the library be “free” that is, open at the point of entry free of charge—there would no longer be a subscription for membership. This condition would make it eligible for a specific amount from its municipality according to Ontario’s public library legislation. More than a hundred communities followed through and received grants.

One architect from Guelph, Ontario, William A. Mahoney (born 16 Sept. 1872 and died 13 Oct. 1952) designed fifteen buildings across the province. This short history looks at Mahoney’s buildings and their subsequent development until the period of the Second World War, especially in connection with Angus Mowat, who inspected most of Mahoney’s buildings and reported on their status about a quarter-century after they originally opened. There were examples of progressive and struggling libraries in Mahoney’s grouping prior to 1945.

William Mahoney's contribution to the Carnegie architectural history of Canadian libraries was large in number but small in terms of interior design and exterior features. His preference for simple, square, classical buildings and open floor plans suited the building period and size of grant allowances that the Carnegie corporation favoured for smaller towns across Canada, especially in Ontario. Mahoney continued a successful practice, building schools and commercial buildings for many years until his retirement. Seven of his buildings continue in use as libraries in 2023.

A testament to Mahoney's design concepts came from Angus Mowat, the Ontario Inspector of Public Libraries from 1937 to 1960, about thirty years after the libraries opened. The Inspector found most of Mahoney's libraries were still generally community assets, although crowded and in need of extensions or interior reorganization. One suggestion, used in a number of Carnegie buildings in the following decades, was to house children's sections in basement rooms that had being planned for other uses. Another testament to William Mahoney's success as an architect is that many of his buildings remain in use more than a century after their construction, surely a notable achievement.

A complete listing of William Mahoney's buildings is at the website, Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Canada 1800–1950.