Opening Doors and Climbing Stairs at Fountainbridge Library

Fountainbridge Library, Dundee Street, Edinburgh is a rare example of modern Scottish architecture. Designed by John A. W. Grant (1886/7–1959) it was built between 1937 and 1940. It opened as a state-of-the-art library during the Blackout of World War II and continues to serve the community today.

Fountainbridge Library, Dundee Street, Edinburgh
Photograph by Alice Strang 2020

Pilkington Jackson Panels

I was initially drawn to the library by the beautiful panels on its façade by Charles d’Orville Pilkington Jackson (1887-1973). They include a central scene of a working man reading, whilst a librarian beside a bookcase advises a mother and child; all are depicted in contemporary clothing to emphasise the educational and egalitarian purpose of the building.

Low-relief panel by Charles d’Orville Pilkington Jackson on facade of Fountainbridge Library, Edinburgh Photograph by P. A. Carravina 2020

The Building’s Original Layout

Intrigued, I began to research the library’s origins. This led me, for example, to the architect’s plans held in the city archives and a wonderfully evocative set of photographs taken of the library interiors in 1940. They show how the ground-floor consisted of a Nelson Hall – used as a Games Room during the day and a concert or lecture hall in the evening – and a Newspaper Reading Room. The entire first floor was given over to a vast open-plan, open access Home Lending Library. The top floor consisted of dedicated Reference and Junior Libraries. The whole building was controlled from a caretaker’s kiosk in the centre of a beautiful octagonal, cantilevered stairwell.

The Nelson Hall of Fountainbridge Library in 1940, now the Library Reading Room
Unknown photographer (c) Capital Collections / City of Edinburgh Council

Doors Open Days 2020 videos

For this year’s on-line Doors Open Days, organised by the Cockburn Association I worked with Sonya Gray, Library Advisor at Edinburgh City Libraries to produce a series of short videos, called ‘Behind Closed Doors’ and ‘Up Secret Stairs’ which are available on YouTube.

Basement Staff Room

These allowed us to show parts of the building which cannot normally be seen by visitors. We started by going down in to the basement into one of the original staff rooms, where an internal telephone of 1940 remains hanging on the wall. Direct lines to the ‘Librarian’ and to ‘Juvenile’ – the children’s library – are still in evidence.

An internal telephone, installed when Fountainbridge Library opened in 1940,
which remains in place in one of the original basement Staff Rooms

Secret Spiral Suitcase

Behind a door beside the current day library lavatories, we revealed an internal spiral staircase. This gives access to the first floor, up onto its roofs and also into the top floor. The staircase would have been a mail order choice from a catalogue.

The secret spiral staircase which provides access from the ground floor
to the top floor at Fountainbridge Library

Handwritten Issue Books

Inside one of the original American Oak cupboards in the Newspaper Reading Room, now the Banfield Room for computer and community use, we found a set of handwritten issue books from the years 1942 to 1948. They recorded how many titles were borrowed from the ‘Home Reading’ section each week and accumulatively each year, in comparison with the year before, in beautifully neat columns.

The first page of the ‘Fountainbridge Library Home Reading Issue Book’ from March 1942

Top Floor Secrets

On the top floor, we went through the glazed door behind the original librarians’ dais between the Reference and Junior Libraries – now the Citizen’s Advice Bureau reception desk – on to the roofs of what was the Lending Library on the first floor. Here we were able to admire the pebble-dashed wings which radiate from a curvilinear central point under the crowning tower head of the building.

Lookout Tower

Perhaps most thrilling of all was going behind an ordinary-looking door and up a stepladder to the room at the very top of the stairwell, above its skylight. Windows provide an almost 360 degree panorama of Edinburgh, which is why it was used as a watch tower during World War Two.

The stepladder leading up to the very top of the stairwell in Fountainbridge Library

Views from the Roofs

From there, a little green door, like something out of Alice in Wonderland, provided access to the roofs of the second floor. From there we could admire views over the city and across the Firth of Forth to Fife.

Door from the top of Fountainbridge Library’s stairwell out on to the roofs of the top floor

Fountainbridge Library in 1940

You can travel back to Fountainbridge Library in 1940 via photographs of its exterior and interior taken when it opened during the Blackout in this blog. The Library will be the next Twentieth-Century Society Building of the Month in a feature which will be available here from 1 October 2020.

This is a short post about Fountainbridge Library and you can find a summary of its Doors Open Day activities here.

I hope you will fall in love with this very special building as I have. Fountainbridge Library is one of six Edinburgh City Libraries which are re-opening on 6 October 2020. I can’t wait!

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