Elsie Perrin was born in 1878 to Alicia May Day and Daniel Simmons Perrin. Her father was a successful and wealthy businessman well-known across Canada for manufacturing cookies and candy. As their only child, Elsie was the heiress to her father’s fortune; at the time of his death in 1908, Daniel Perrin left a significant inheritance for his daughter in a trust. Following her mother’s death in 1927, Elsie had access to the trust’s income for the rest of her life.
Elsie married the British-born Dr. Hadley Williams in 1905. Dr. Williams had received his M.D. from Western University in the late 1880s, and by 1905, was teaching surgery there. He would also go on to become the head of surgery and clinical surgery, as well as to practice both medicine and surgery at London’s St. Joseph’s and Victoria hospitals respectively.
Elsie’s father gave the young couple the Perrin’s summer home, Windermere, as a wedding present. Elsie and Hadley made Windermere, along with its 68-acre estate, their main residence. Elsie destroyed the original Windermere in 1916, and built a house in the Spanish Colonial Revival style. The estate would lend its name to the street on which it was located: Windermere Road.
Keenly interested in art, Elsie was a member the London Women’s Art Club and was an artist herself. Examples of her work, such as oil paintings and needlepoint, can still be found at Windermere.
Following the death of her husband in 1932, Elsie revised her will. Since Elsie and Hadley did not have any children, Windermere was left to the city of London as a museum, and its environs were to serve as a public park. Elsie also ensured that the city would have access to financial assets, totalling 1.3 million dollars for the purposes of upkeep. If the property were not used in the manner set forth in the will, it would be transferred in its entirety to the Ursuline order of nuns at Brescia College (now Brescia University College). Today, this amount would be equivalent to over 22 million dollars Canadian.
In addition to these restrictions, Elsie also dictated that before coming into possession of the city, Windermere would first go to her housekeeper, Harriet Corbett, who could reside there for as long she chose, be provided with a paid servant, and receive a stipend. Harriett lived at Windermere until her death in 1979, at which point the estate came under the management of the Heritage London Foundation as an event venue, and the lands became the public park Elsie had envisioned them to be.
When Elsie passed away in 1934, the city wished to “break” the restrictions of the will and use the bequest for other projects. The case made its way to the Ontario Legislature, and in 1938 the city was given permission to repurpose the funds. The Ursuline nuns at Brescia College were given $100 000 to release their rights to the inheritance.
In the end, part of Elsie’s bequest went towards two projects for which the city of London had been eager to find funds: the building of a new wing onto what was then Victoria Hospital; and a new library and art gallery, which would serve as central branch of the city’s library system for many years.
Built between 1939 and 1940, the new library and art gallery building opened its doors in October 1940. London Architects Thornton McBride and L. Gordon Bridgman designed the building, which is constructed from Queenston limestone in the Art Deco style, with input from the city’s chief librarian Richard Crouch. Engraved across the top of the building’s façade are the words: “London Public Library Elsie Perrin Williams Memorial Art Gallery and Museum.”
In its March 1942 article, “Planning for Postwar Library Building,” the American Library Association Bulletin, citing the architects McBride and Bridgman, placed the total cost of the 93.0 x 156.0-foot (28.35 x 47.55 metres) building – including the land on which it was built, the physical structure, stacks (shelving), other furnishings and equipment, lighting, and miscellaneous other considerations – at $295,641. In 1940, this amount would have been the equivalent of over 5 million dollars Canadian today.
The same ALA Library Bulletin article called the building “clean-cut,” “inviting,” and “one of the finest examples of what a modern public library should look like.” In June 1945, The Christian Science Monitor stated that the building, home not only to the public library and art gallery, but also London’s historical museum, “ha[d] been acclaimed by library authorities as one of the finest of its type in the Dominion” and was “a veritable center [sic] of community activity.” It further described the building’s auditorium for musical performances and its three art gallery spaces with monthly changing exhibitions, the facilitation of school visits, and even small Saturday morning art classes.
These descriptions illustrate the impressiveness of the building and its design. However, public libraries themselves were not a novelty to the city. London’s first public library had opened in 1895, and the Elsie Perrin Williams Memorial Art Gallery and Museum was London’s fourth library building.
London’s history with art galleries, or rather the lack thereof, was more fraught. It was not until 1912 that the city had a functioning one room gallery, built on the Queens Park fair grounds, where the work of local artists and works on loan from elsewhere could be exhibited. Until that point, London’s artists had only had exhibition spaces, first the Mechanics Institute and Museum (1842-1895), annual art shows through the Western Fair and, after 1895, exhibitions at the public library. However, the new gallery was not open year-round; because it was unheated, the building operated only during the months of milder weather.
The art community in London had tried to raise funds for a permanent art gallery for many years, and with the construction of the Elsie Perrin Williams Memorial Art Gallery and Museum, it finally reached that goal.
While the Elsie Perrin Williams Memorial Art Gallery and Museum’s art collection would migrate in 1980 to a new home at the London Regional Art Gallery (now known as Museum London), the building would serve as the central branch of the London, Ontario Public Library system for more than 60 years until it closed in 2002. In 2001, the building’s exterior, foyer, and central hall were designated as a heritage property by the City of London, Ontario.
Elsie Perrin Williams may never have foreseen her legacy taking quite this form, but for decades her name was written, quite literally in stone, into London’s artistic, cultural, and educational history.
Luvneet K. Rana
Sources, “Elsie P. Williams and London, Ontario’s First Permanent Art Gallery “