The Halifax Memorial Library site is an integral part of the history of Halifax. Upon Halifax being founded by Lord Cornwallis in 1749 the fortifications and walls were built around the settlement. The Memorial Library site lay directly outside the walls of Halifax. Thus, the land was still secure and could be used for activities not wanted within the walled township.
As with many settlements the issue of poverty and death were part of early Halifax. In 1760, the Poor Workshop opened and was located along Spring Garden Road at the site of what is now The Doyle. The Poor Workshop would morph into the Halifax Poorhouse in the Victorian era. Indeed, the Memorial Library site marks a dark chapter in Halifax's early history where the destitute, impoverished, and unwanted ended their days; while often making their own coffins.
The site served for approximately 100 years as the pauper’s graveyard, where many thousands are buried there still, including soldiers, indigenous persons, and cholera victims. And with changes to the width of Spring Garden Road, it is very likely many are buried under the street. One example is the pirates of the barque Saladin in 1844 - last major trial and hanging for piracy in Nova Scotia. It is said that two of the condemned pirates are buried under the sidewalk along Spring Garden Road facing the Memorial Library... Two graves among many thousands.
By 1882 the site had long ended being used for a cemetery and under a special Grant negotiated by the Province, General Doyle-Hastings, and the Council of Halifax, the site was turned into Grafton Park. The Grant held the property as a public space and park as a permanent lease to the City of Halifax. This grant respected the site’s past as a cemetery where over 4,000 - likely many more - are interred. This would all change by the opening of the Memorial Library in 1951.
In 1945 the City of Halifax still lacked a public library and it was decided that Grafton Park would be the site for one. The library as a structure is also a cenotaph to those Haligonians who served in The Great War (WWI), World War II, and Korea. The Canadian legion also played a key role in fundraising and design of the library. Construction began in 1949, which led to the desecration of those graves under the library, a fact still not publicly acknowledged even to this day.
The Halifax Memorial Library was designed by Leslie R. Fairn and built by the Standard Construction Company Ltd. as a modern classical structure. It was the first post-war public building to be built in Halifax. The Province of Nova Scotia gave special alteration to the 1882 grant to build in Grafton Park. With the Memorial Library closed as of August, 2014, the site faces an uncertain future. Currently, a development plan by the City of Halifax for a joint venture with Dalhousie University would again desecrate the pauper’s graves while disposing of a war memorial and cenotaph.
“The lack of such a library in Halifax is felt by many to be a disgrace. Nothing could be more symbolic of the sacrifices of those we wish to honour than a library housing books which Adolf Hitler burnt. A well-designed library would be a lasting Memorial, and with the passage of the years would evermore fittingly hallow the memories of those who died that others might enjoy freedom of speech and freedom of study.”
—Petition to Mayor and Council, December 4, 1947