Before the MacLaren Art Centre became an art gallery, the original building at the corner of Mulcaster and Collier streets was once occupied by the Barrie Public Library. In 1914 the Barrie Library, located on Owen Street, was opened to the public as a "free" institution by a local bylaw and supported solely by municipal and provincial grants. Shortly after this bylaw was passed, the library staff realized the building was too small to keep up with the capacity of the circulation department's needs. In response, the Board of Directors applied for a $15,000 grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York to build a new facility. The grant was approved and the corner of Collier and Mulcaster Streets was chosen for the new location. The new facility would be named The Barrie Carnegie Library.
The new library was designed by A.H. Chapman of Chapman and McGriffin of Toronto and constructed by Ball Planing Mill of Barrie. In July of 1915, after a number of estimates and amendments were made to the specifications, the final proposal for the building and equipment by Ball Planning Mill was for $15,276, leaving an excess of $276 to be raised locally. With his training from the École des Beaux Arts in Paris and in New York, Chapman used Palladian style doors and windows, acanthus leaf bracketed keystones, dark red bricks with bluish flash all laid in light gray mortar, and embellishments of terra-cotta and Indiana limestone for some features of the typical classical revival style of Carnegie libraries, which are located throughout Ontario.
The building is designated under Part IV of the Ontario Heritage Act as a property of architectural and historical significance to the City of Barrie. Plans to move into the new facility happened earlier than expected due to a fire at the high school later in 1916. Because the collegiate building was burned down, the Owen Street building was rented to the Board of Education to facilitate classes and the library was moved to Collier Street before construction was finished. The building was completed in 1917 and the official opening for the library occurred in June.
As the years passed the population and demand for materials grew as well. By 1961, the building and contents were worth more than $100,000. To accommodate growing demands, a new wing was constructed in 1964 using similar brick patterns and large arched windows as the original building. Space was doubled and a basement storage area was added as well. The architects were Pentland and Baker and Salter and Allison. The new wing was officially opened on September 24, 1964. The building continued as the Barrie Public Library until the late 1990s, when the library moved into a new, much larger purpose-built building.
The City of Barrie had already planned for the MacLaren Art Centre (then located in Maurice MacLaren's century home built in 1868 on Toronto Street) to move into the Carnegie library. Planning for this move began in the early 1990s, with the undertaking of numerous focus group studies with the residents of Barrie, and much discussion about what everyone wanted to see in their new art centre. The overwhelming response was that people wanted to retain the feeling of a "home", they wanted an intimate space. The architecture firm Hariri Pontarini was engaged to design the renovations and building, said architect Siamak Hariri, " [it] is just as much about community as it is about art."
The renovations were completed by the end of the summer of 2001, and the new building opened to a crowd of 7,000 people in late September 2001. The resulting new building is a beautiful, open, blend of old and new. The new building has won much critical acclaim and several architectural awards including the 2003 Ontario Association of Architects Award for the Best Building under $10 million.