Military Institute building gone, but not forgotten

Members of the Royal Canadian Military Institute lower the Canadian flag last spring in front of the club on University. The building is now being renovated to accommodate a condominium on the site. (RCMI6)

The librarian at an historic Toronto building looks forward to renovation, but laments the passing of the old facility.

Penny Lipman, the long-time librarian at the Royal Canadian Military Institute, left the building on University Avenue when the members did in June. All that’s left is the RCMI façade, as a Toronto developer constructs a condominium on the site. Lipman said the historical building had gone downhill to the extent it couldn’t be saved anymore.

“For us who worked there, it was full of termites; the electrical was bad; it didn’t have air conditioning,” she said. “It’s going to be much better as a working environment for us when it’s new. It was sad in a way but when it was empty of furniture, you could see how bad it was in condition,” Lipman said.

The atmosphere changed last spring as staff could wear jeans and t-shirts when the last of the RCMI members had left the building. Furniture was removed and a garage sale marked the end of a 100-year legacy. Lipman remembers the library, but feels as if it’s not really gone.

“(The library is) in storage for two years. For the membership it’s gone, but for me it’s still there,” she said.

Lipman explained that the library, the most popular room at the RCMI, felt like a gentleman’s library in an English home.

“It had a very Old World feel with 14-foot ceilings. There were ladders, I personally liked, but didn’t climb all the way up,” she said. “It was available for rental. There were lots of dinners, wedding receptions in the library, book launches and Fort York lunches.”

Lipman explained the library contained books about animals and war, as well as artifacts, military biographies and little known details about warfare.

“We have World War One (information about) how they trained carrier pigeons and what kind of flights they went on. At the back, listed were the well-known carrier pigeons with their number, how many missions they’d been on, the people they saved and the pigeons’ medals,” she said.

Lipman caters to all members’ library needs, but sometimes just receives visitors.

“In the Library one day, a boy said to me that this was as close to Harry Potter as he would ever get. I loved that, and that was indeed what it felt like,” Lipman said.

Although the library will be modernized in the renovation that will see a multi-story condominium built on the site, Heritage Toronto has been vocal about the recreation of the library to its original state.

“Since (the library) is to be reconstructed as much as possible, maybe it will be again,” Lipman said.