Sunday, 22 May 2011

The Library that Got Another Job

Having some fun: Auckland’s former Grafton library.
What happens when you’re made redundant? You go into a decline, graceful or otherwise; you get another job; you have some fun — or try all three. This is as true for buildings as it is for people, and the former library I visited last weekend is a good illustration.

The Grafton Public Library had its final chapter 21 years ago, only to begin a sequel focusing on its new career in the hospitality industry — initially as the Palais de Danse nightclub. We all know the stereotype of libraries as places where patrons are urged to “Shhh!”. A nightclub, on the other hand, is a glorified boom box. To this irony, Grafton’s transformation added another layer: in its early years the library had offered a hall for hire, with the injunction that it must not be used for dancing.

This “lecture hall”, then a common feature in libraries, complemented the lending department, reading room and committee room in architect Edward Bartley’s design for 2 Mt Eden Rd, near the Symonds St intersection. Constructed for £3037, the Grafton library opened in 1913 as the Auckland Public Library’s first branch.*

Bridge to the City
For its existence we can apparently thank a nearby landmark once claimed to be the world’s longest single-span ferro-concrete structure. When Grafton Bridge opened in 1910, “hundreds who lived on the other side of the deep gully suddenly felt themselves to be part of the greater Auckland”, writes public library historian Wynne Colgan. Doubtless they wanted the associated conveniences: services pertaining not only to rats, rates, rubbish but also to education, enlightenment, entertainment.

The Grafton library had at least its share of loyal patrons. Cliff Sanders, lamenting its loss, told the Auckland Star in 1990 that he’d joined in 1949 while working at the nearby ammunition testing unit. He used the branch for the next five decades, despite leaving the area around 1960. Parnell and Remuera libraries would have been more convenient, he admitted. “But it was such a nice building, the atmosphere was so good and the staff so lively I kept on going.” 

The interior of the building today,
including reading matter.
A Grim and Forbidding Reminder?  
He would no doubt have disagreed with Colgan, who writes that halfway through its library life, in the mid-1950s, the Grafton branch was “a grim and forbidding reminder of what library buildings looked like in the early 20th century”. But certainly its use quietly declined over the years. By 1990 when the Auckland City Council rubber-stamped the last of several proposals for its closure, it was open just two days a week.

The end of Grafton’s library appears unrelated to the sort of recessionary cost-cutting we see with public libraries around the world today. Nor does it have much to do with the much-discussed end of books, reading, the world as we know it, etc. The neighbourhood simply changed.

Greater Auckland’s Circulation System
This “Upper Symonds Street Historic Area”, as categorised by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust, evolved from residential to retail/commercial between the 1880s and 1930s, then went into decline, says the trust. It followed a pattern seen in parts of several major centres:
– horse-drawn and then electric trams are introduced (turn of the century);
– trams disappear and fewer people come into the area;
– those remaining have “a strong local identity” but are “a small community battling for survival on the outskirts of the central business district”.

Here the neighbourhood includes the variously intersecting parts of New North, Mt Eden, Khyber Pass and Newton roads. Standing at the top of Symonds St, I think how road widening and the motorways snaking nearby must have further reduced, divided, even choked that community to boost greater Auckland’s circulation system from the 1960s on. A glance at a map will remind you that some of the city’s most complex arterial routes have been constructed there. 

Galbraith’s Alehouse, 2 Mt Eden Rd.
Photo: Laurie MacFayden.
How Books and Beer Compare
Despite everything, the building at 2 Mt Eden Rd looks like a winner. The Palais de Danse was short-lived, but the Galbraith’s Alehouse that replaced it in 1995 stands strong, and I don’t just mean with its 8.7 per cent Resurrection Ale.  

Admittedly there’s less to read than in a library but they have newspapers available, and extensive beer and wine lists to peruse. I like to think drinking good beer offers something similar to reading some really good books, anyway: complexity, balance, sensory satiation, insight, goodwill... 

It’s incredible how well this gracious building has adapted to hostelry. I want to describe Galbraith’s as an English pub, but writer Peter Calder may have a point when he claims it’s nothing of the kind. “Most English pubs have beeping, flashing pokies; many have a bass-heavy techno-funk soundtrack designed to entertain profusely pierced bar staff and make conversation painful if not impossible; few English pubs have real ale now.”
Emerson’s Bookbinder Ale.
At Galbraith’s, he points out, “nothing competes with the burbling chatter of deeply contented patrons”. That’s true, although if you’re after a quiet pint or a meal out with friends, daytime is preferable. Voices increase in volume once the evening arrives.

In honour of the building’s bibliophilic history, the beer I sampled and enjoyed on my recent visit was not one of the alehouse’s own but an Emerson’s Bookbinder Bitter from Dunedin. My companion drank a favourite dark, Galbraith’s Grafton Porter. 

Getting a Good Feed
To complement the beer, Carol ordered Sunday Roast Leg of Lamb with All the Trimmings. My choice was Pumpkin and Chestnut Ravioli with Buttered Winter Greens, Confit of Pearl Onions, Smoked Garlic and Sage Butter, Parmesan Crisp. Though in the ‘lighter’ section of the menu, this was robust and sizeable. It was also delicious. 

Sunday Roast at Galbraith’s,
and (below) a setting for one.
As my meal suggests, they do ‘do’ vegetarian here, though with such meaty fare as “Chips Cooked in Beef Dripping” on offer, I’m not the key market. The chef is English: Carol said the superb quality of her Yorkshire puddin’s made that indisputable. I’ve had fair-to-middling meals there before as well as excellent ones. As I’ve experienced both parts of the spectrum with the same menu items, perhaps it depends who’s on duty.  
In the Neighbourhood Now
Within cooee of the alehouse are a few other eateries and watering holes plus the specialty food, kitchen and dinnerware businesses Sabato, the House of Knives, the Studio of Tableware. (The nearest public libraries are Central and Parnell, but the Mount Eden Village down the road has a good bookshop.)

One of the local watering holes is made up to look like the famous old pub at Cardrona, near Wanaka. It’s a Speight’s Ale House, and is it really Cardrona that inspired it? If the Speight’s Ale Houses and Mac’s Brewbars around New Zealand are the two brewery giants’ versions of the Galbraith’s experience, I suspect they’re watered down. 

Galbraith’s prides itself on its English-style cask-conditioned ales, made with imported hops and barley. Compared with the ice-cold liquid many Kiwis grew up with, they’re what my favourite Asterix book calls “warm beer” — and full of flavour. 

The way inn — to a meat-eater’s heaven.
As you enter the alehouse you can see the large room where they’re made. Last Sunday brewer Ian Ramsay, a man of about 60, let me in and was amused to hear of my blog project: it turns out that he used to visit this place as a boy of five — when it was a library, mind.

* The Auckland Public Library opened in 1880. Ponsonby’s library opened earlier than Grafton’s, but Leys Institute (as it was and is) was not a city council initiative. 

Warm welcome.


  1. Great title for this post! I also love the way you connect books and beer - two of my favourite things.

  2. A bit more about the library building and architect: the NZ Historic Places Trust has sent me the relevant bits of a report that describes the library as a “finely detailed neo-classic structure” that is “a significant feature in this vicinity”. Edward Bartley “was notable as contributing numerous buildings of merit to the Auckland cityscape”, including branches of the Auckland Savings Bank, the Jubilee Institute of the Blind (1906, Parnell) and the Synagogue (1881, Princes St, CBD).
    This info is from Petry, Bruce and Antony Matthews, ‘Nomination for Upper Symonds Street Historic Area’, NZHPT, Auckland, 1995.

  3. But wait, there’s more! Historian Lisa Truttman has just posted about this building too:

  4. I was delighted to see you had decided to include Galbraiths in this blog - a place I visit frequently because of my English partner's devotion to the real ale - and they are truly better than the English equivalents - possibly due to the water? I don't think all the ingredients for all the beers are imported. I appreciate them too but not as much as the food - which is a bit variable; but as I'm not cooking it myself and it is mostly very good we keep going back. You can still see the marks along the walls where the library shelves were and it has a lovely aged/lived in feel that so many NZ buildings haven't managed to accumulate yet.
    I am enjoying all your descriptions and interesting background information.

  5. Thanks to Lindy and Bookbrainz. Bookbrainz, I think I’ve been enjoying your comments in other places too - unless there are two of you...