History of the Mechanics Institute of Montreal

We trace our origins back to 1828, when the first mechanics’ institute established in continental British North America was formed in Montreal. Today, with our official name, Atwater Library and Computer Centre, we are the sole survivor of the many mechanics’ institutes established in Canada in the 19th century. The rest were either closed or merged into public library systems. We carry on proudly, aware of our roots, true to our founders’ vision, but meeting current community needs with modern technology.

In 1828, some prominent Montreal citizens formed the Montreal Mechanics Institution because they saw a need to educate workers for the emerging industries of the growing city. Patron of the new organization was Sir James Kempt, governor of Lower Canada and first president was Louis Gugy, sheriff of Montreal. Vice-presidents were industrialist John Molson; merchant Horatio Gates; Louis-Joseph Papineau, speaker of the Assembly of Lower Canada, and the Assembly’s representative from the west end of the city; and Rev. Henry Esson, educator and Church of Scotland pastor of the St. Gabriel Street Church. Active members appear to have been mainly artisans, craftsmen and shopkeepers who were employers.

Patterned after mechanics institutions that had already sprung up in England and Scotland, the aim of the new Montreal Institution was, according to Rev. Esson, “to see to the instruction of its members in the arts and in the various branches of science and useful knowledge.” Rather than classroom activities, the institution ran a lecture program, organized weekly information sessions and had a library and reading room.

It was a time when the building trades were expanding rapidly, highlighted by the construction of the Lachine Canal and Notre Dame Church. The population of Montreal was about 23,000, and the principal commercial and social centre of the city was St. Paul Street. Many educational institutions were developing at the time, including McGill University which began teaching classes in the arts and in medicine in 1829.

By 1834, pre-Rebellion political unrest in Montreal, as well as rivalries based on religion and educational objectives, led to a suspension of activities of the Institution. The last meeting was held on March 24, 1835.

Second Institute Formed: A New Era

In 1840, with the Rebellion of 1837 passed and Montreal returning to political peace, the Mechanics’ Institute of Montreal was formed–a revitalization of the previous Institution. The constitution was essentially the same, equipment was obtained from the earlier group, courses of study were to be similar, and eighty members of the first group were eligible for free membership for a year (twenty-four joined). John Redpath, a builder, who had been an officer of the previous organization in 1833, became president of the new Mechanics Institute.

A public lecture program was established as “the best means of awakening in the public a desire for knowledge.” (Annual Report 1841) Night classes were created to offer at various times, reading, writing, arithmetic, French, and architectural, mechanical and ornamental drawing to apprentices and workmen. Elementary school courses were offered, but the main focus was on secondary studies. This was one of the first organized efforts in Canada to encourage adult education, and it continued virtually uninterrupted for nearly thirty years, when the courses were taken over by the government.

Beginning in 1843 and continuing for some years, small industrial exhibitions were held annually by the Mechanics’ Institute to present to the public the scientific advances being made by various industries active in the city. Called the Mechanics’ Festival, they were popular social events in Montreal and included vocal and instrumental music and addresses. They were held in Bonsecours Hall.

In 1845, the Mechanics’ Institute of Montreal was incorporated by an Act of the old Parliament of Canada. (Under the Act of Union, the Province of Canada had been created in 1840 from the colonies of Upper and Lower Canada.)

In 1855, the Mechanics’ Institute opened its own building, at the corner of Great St. James and St. Peter streets (now St. Jacques and St. Pierre, in Old Montreal). The building was decorated with banners such as “To Make a Man a Better Mechanic and the Mechanic a Better Man.” With a large lecture hall, it became one of the main cultural centres of the city, and remained so for some thirty years until the residential population shifted north and west.

By 1859, the library of the Institute had become one of its most important features. The annual report notes: “The library and reading room form the chief attractions of the Institute, and the manner in which these departments are supplied and managed will always have great influence on the membership list.”

For several years beginning in the late 1850s, Alexander Cowper Hutchison taught architectural drawing at the Institute. The son of a Scottish-born stonemason, A.C. Hutchison had himself taken mechanical drawing at the Institute, and went on to become one of Montreal’s leading architects. He was involved in the design and construction of major buildings in Montreal, including the Redpath Museum, Erskine and American United Church and the old La Presse building. His firm, Hutchison, Wood and Miller, would later design the current Atwater Library building.

In November 1868, a mechanicial drawing class with twenty-four students having a syllabus of practical geometry, details of engines, and other machinery and solid geometry, became the last class sponsored by the Mechanics’ Institute. The government-sponsored Board of Arts and Manufacturers took over running of the classes, which were offered free to members of the Institute and as a result attracted more pupils. The library and the lectures series became the main focus of the Mechanics’ Institute.

Moving West

By 1910, support was growing for selling the St. James Street building and relocating the Institute closer to residential areas. The value of the land had increased vastly during the previous fifty years and it was now in the centre of what had become the city’s financial and banking district. The building was sold, and the new site at the corner of Atwater and Tupper streets was chosen. Budget for building and equipping the new building was $120,000. Sufficient proceeds of the sale were invested to provide income to cover projected maintenance and operating costs of $12,000 a year. President during the period 1913-1920 was William Rutherford.

Construction of the building was begun in 1918 and completed in 1920. Design was by the architectural firm of Hutchison, Wood and Miller, and by that time A. C. Hutchison was retired and the drawings were prepared by his grandson. His brother, builder J. Henry Hutchison, who served on the Mechanics’ Institute board of management, headed the building committee.

In 1920, with great ceremony, the new building was opened. In January 1995, seventy-five years later, Montreal architect Susan Bronson spoke at a special evening commemorating the building opening. During her talk, she described the exterior of the building as follows:

“[The building has] a solid sense of architectural integrity resulting from its simple and clear composition, selective and consistent detailing, and high-quality construction.

“[It] is clad in buff brick with certain features–cornice, frames around the upper floor windows, medallion reliefs, panels below the windows, band moulding that signifies the ground level–highlighted in Indiana limestone. The ground floor, the level of which is signified on the exterior by a continuous stone moulding, is raised to allow maximum light to enter the lower level. Large arched windows on three sides provide the building with the prestige of a Renaissance palazzo; yet its detailing is simple and dignified, almost modern…

“The Atwater Avenue facade, facing the public square across the way, is perfectly symmetrical. Its composition is dominated by a central doorway that fits snugly into the centre arched opening. On Tupper Street, also a major facade, the composition is similar….The west facade has a series of long narrow windows that are proportioned according to the spacing of the two storeys of stacks inside….Nine medallions on the north, east and south facades illustrate aspects of art, science and industry.”

By 1940, the library boasted one of the finest technical reference libraries in Canada, and had a total of approximately 45,000 volumes. At the time, encouragement of non-fiction reading was a library policy, conforming to the needs of its reading public and the educational objectives of the library.

Changing Focus

In 1962, the library changed its name to the Atwater Library of the Mechanics’ Institute of Montreal to reflect its interest in serving a wider public. In fact, the focus of its book collection was in the process of changing to fiction, biography and travel, with the technical aspects of the collection becoming more of historical and research interest.

In 1977 and 1978 efforts were made to make the library work better for its constituency at a time of declining revenues and dramatic political change in Quebec. The large-print book collection was expanded. Books-by-mail, a project of president Thomas Anglin, began operations. It was widely successful, reaching a peak in 1983 when 4,697 books were distributed to members across Canada, especially in the relatively isolated North Shore of the St. Lawrence River. An Atwater Library children’s division was initiated, catering to three to twelve-year-olds.

In the 1978 annual report, Tom Anglin reported that financial assets were being depleted to meet operating expenses. He spoke of the possibility of selling the building to the adjoining Reddy Memorial Hospital, but he indicated that the Reddy had offered to pay only the value of the land. Dr. Norman Eade, then a member of the board, notes that “at the time, among the moves contemplated was to reestablish the library in the Mile End district of Montreal, a multi-cultural area where there was no library. Subsequently, the City of Montreal established a library there in a former Anglican church.”

In his 1980 president’s annual report, Dr. Eade said that the decision had been made to revitalize the library in its current Atwater Avenue location and “leave intact a legacy that had been entrusted to our care.” This would involve a move into the computer era. According to Dr. Eade, “offering computer courses and providing computer support outside of the university context seemed an apppropriate avenue in keeping with the traditions of the library.”

In 1981, the Montreal Children’s Library moved its head office and main branch into the lower level of the Atwater Library building. This was made possible by a grant in memory of Judith Ewen Reford. When the move took place, the Atwater Library children’s division was closed.

In 1984, Dr. Ted Connolly (president 1982 and 1983, and in 1984 vice-president and chairman of the board’s computer committee) introduced the beginnings of the present-day computer centre within one of the main floor reading rooms. A classroom for computer courses was established on the second floor. A grant from the federal Ministry of Communications enabled the project to go forward.

1990 was a year of financial crisis for the library as a result of increasing operating costs and a major decline in government grants. Financial assets had been depleted. Rather than close the facility, the membership decided to reduce paid staff to three, increase the responsibilities and number of volunteers, and seek new methods of financing. Over the next couple of years, charitable foundations were approached for help by library president Ralph Leavitt, and the response enabled the library to continue operations. New directions were examined, and it was decided to improve and expand computer facilities for the public.

By 1994, through the efforts of Anne Pasold (president in 1992, 1994 and 1995), one of the reading rooms was re-equipped and refurbished to house an enlarged computer centre. Architect and board member Susan Bronson ensured that the reading room was restored in a manner faithful to its architectural beginnings.

In 1996, pentium computers were purchased for the computer classroom, with funding from a charitable foundation. The same year, as a result of budget constraints, the books-by-mail project that had been so successful in the 1980s was regretfully cancelled.

In 1996, Andrea Rutherford Burgess became president of the Atwater Library, continuing a family tradition. Three of Mrs. Burgess’ relatives, great-uncle Henry Bulmer (1851); great-grandfather William Rutherford (1889); and her grandfather William Rutherford (1913-1920) were all presidents of the Mechanics’ Institute.

In 2003 with the generous help of several charitable foundations, the library catalogue automation system became available.

In 2004, the organization put new emphasis on becoming more involved in the surrounding community, and developed new or expanded partnerships with groups associated with Peter McGill Community Council, IleSansFil, Quebec Writers Federation, and others.

In September 2005, the building was declared a National Historic Site.


  • Atwater Library. Atwater Library of Mechanics’ Insitute of Montreal, 1972
  • Bronson, Susan. 75th Building Inauguration Anniversary Lecture 1995, Atwater Library (unpublished)
  • Eade, Dr. Norman. telephone interview, October 10, 1997
  • Hamilton, William. Mechanics Institute of Montreal, 1920
  • Kuntz, Harry. The Educational Work of the Two Montreal Mechanics’ Institutes (master’s thesis), Concordia University, January 1993
  • Roberts, Leslie. Montreal: From Mission Colony to World City, Macmillian, Toronto, 1969
  • Robbins, Nora. “The Montreal Mechanics Institute: 1828-1870,” Canadian Library Journal, pp. 373-379