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Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 25

Gothic Revival in Canadian Architecture

by Mathilde Brosseau

The Romantic Gothic Revival

In Canada, the history of Gothic Revival begins in 1811, when Governor James Craig set up a commission to establish the plans for a new Parliament building in Quebec City.1 The proposals received included those of a British architect named Jeffry Wyatt, who submitted an ambitious project in the style of Gothic Revival. The plans show a building inspired by medieval castles, as indicated by the crenelated parapets and the facades punctuated by polygonal turrets (Fig. 1). Other Neo-Gothic features naturally include the great pointed arches of the porch and the line of windows crowned by the medieval drip moulding typical of the style. Despite these specifically medieval features, the arrangement of masses is in strict compliance with the principles of symmetry and two-dimensional surfaces, both being characteristic of 18th century architectural traditions.

As if to stress the idea that the Neo-Gothic style was nothing more than an interchangeable stylistic dressing, the same architect submitted another project maintaining the same scheme of composition and identical proportions, but with the elevations decorated this time according to the classical repertoire (Fig. 2). The composition of the Parliament of Quebec by Jeffry Wyatt thus illustrates a characteristic which was to become a constant among the first Canadian buildings inspired by the Gothic Revival — the addition of Gothic embellishments to a traditional scheme. The British origin of the designer of this project, Jeffry Wyatt, appears to be significant. Compositions of this kind, so alien to native Canadian traditions of the time, were quite popular in contemporary England. Interest in medieval subjects had been growing in that country since the beginning of the 18th century, particularly among wealthy dilettantes and antiquarians imbued with historicism. Manifestations of this state of mind included the creation of the famous Fonthill Abbey, the pseudo-abbey built for the ultra-wealthy William Beckford between 1796 and 1807 by the architect James Wyatt. Moreover, this was the uncle of Jeffry Wyatt who specialized in the reconstruction of medieval castles and familiarized his nephew with the Gothic repertoire.2 Probably because of budget restrictions, this initial attempt to implant a fashion, which was then strictly British, did not see the light of day in Quebec City. The project nevertheless points out the origin of the style and the country from which each new development would later spring forth. It thus foreshadows the line of dependence that was to be established between England and its Canadian colony throughout the evolution of the Gothic Revival.

Religious Architecture

The first great manifestations of the Gothic Revival did not appear in Canadian construction until the 1820s. Ironically, the new style made its first striking appearance in the religious architecture of Quebec, where deeply rooted native traditions did not seem to be threatened by the appearance of foreign fashions. In 1824, the Montreal Congregation of Saint Sulpice decided to build a new church on a scale then unequalled in North America. With this in mind, they retained the services of James O'Donnell, an Irish architect emigrated to New York. He gave them a new Gothic church inspired by the Commissioners Churches of England. The latter were an imposing group of churches built from 1818 to 1835 as a result of a bill passed in the British Parliament to provide adequate places of worship in the new industrial areas. Their basic plan remains rectangular (without apse or transept) like that of the Reform churches and their Gothic Revival appearance applies only to the outer walls without modifying the scheme of articulation.3 Consequently, Notre-Dame is a church with trail proportions and Gothic features which, with their immaterial character and horizontal grid arrangement, appear subordinate to the regularity of composition (Fig. 3). Even the upward sweep of the gable on the main façade is made ineffectual by a crenelated parapet between the two end towers.

The construction of Notre-Dame had quite a strong impact on Quebec architectural circles; it even inspired a series of imitations, of which the best-known example is the church of Sainte Anne-de-la-Pérade built from 1855 to 1869 by Casimir Coursol4 (Fig. 4). The dual tower formula, which was not unprecedented in Quebec religious architecture, became a long-standing model for grand-scale urban Gothic Revival churches.5

Some twenty years after the construction of Notre-Dame it was the turn of the Protestant churches located in Quebec City to undergo the influence of the Commissioners Churches. Three large Protestant denominations (Anglican, Presbyterian and Methodist), as well as the Catholic confession, each decided to erect a Gothic Revival urban church. Thus it was that in 1848 a type of church, already produced by certain British architects such as Francis Goodwin during the construction of the Commissioners Churches in the 1820s, was chosen by the prolific architect Edward Staveley when commissioned to build the New Wesleyan Methodist Church on Saint Stanislas Street. Often designed for working class towns, these churches were meant to combine the principles of efficiency and economy, i.e., to hold the greatest number of worshippers for the lowest cost. These were the Gable Churches, named after the prominent effect of the angle of the great gable on the west façade.6 The ornamental aspect of Gothic design still plays an important rôle, as witnessed by the series of false buttresses running along the building and projecting beyond the summit in as many miniaturized spires (Fig. 5). The Scottish Presbyterians had a Gothic Revival church built by the architect Wells. It too is an offshoot of the Commissioners Churches; its floor plan is rectangular and its great Gothic windows arranged in two series interrupted by a horizontal impost reveal the presence of U-shaped interior galleries attached precisely to that strip7 (Fig. 6).

The afore-mentioned Protestant churches seem foreign to native architectural traditions. However, Catholic churches include several examples of modification of certain traditional types under the influence of the new style. Saint Sulpice, built about 1832, is representative of the Gothic Revival influence on churches that observe the articulation and proportion of the Conefroy plan. Named after its designer, Father Pierre Conefroy (1752-1816), this plan had been conceived as a return to the type of church established under Msgr. de Laval in order to counter the effects, considered injurious, of English immigration into the diocese of Montreal since the conquest.8 Saint Sulpice reproduces its balanced proportions, the very steep roof, the bell-tower position slightly back from the façade and the projecting apse. But the Gothic Revival influence is visible in the design of the bays, which nevertheless include designs of classical inspiration (Fig. 7).

In the Maritimes too, the Gothic Revival was confronted with an established tradition. This developed when the Loyalists arrived, orienting architecture toward the neo-classical tradition based on harmonious proportions, rules of symmetry and skilled arrangement of classical detail. In 1824, in the full vigour of this tradition, widespread interest was attracted by the sudden appearance of an ambitious Gothic Revival project — Trinity Church in Saint John, N.B., which was built according to the plan of Scottish architect John Cunningham9 (Fig. 8). Its popular name — Stone Church — indicates the somewhat rare use of stone in a region where timber was found in abundance and stood up better to temperature differences. The use of stone would also appear to be a deliberate attempt to heighten the resemblance to English medieval churches. Its stonework done by Scottish masons is remarkable for the time; the regular courses of trimmed quarry stone reveal great skill, as does the treatment of Gothic detail: a pointed obtuse arch, elegant decorative bay tracery and a tower topped with stylized finials. However, despite a deliberate effort to delve into the Gothic repertoire, the design still expresses the spirit of the end of the 18th century through its very compact composition of masses, its low gable slope partly concealed by the crenelated parapet and, finally, its triangular pediment effect at the top of the frontal.

Just as Trinity Church demonstrates the intrusion of Gothic Revival in the architectural domain reserved to professional architects, the Bayhead Church in Nova Scotia is typical of the later development of the vernacular style in the Atlantic Provinces (Fig. 9). This type of church is derived from the meeting houses of New England, with its clapboard siding and rectangular plan with the main entry in the centre of the two narrower façades. The only touch of Gothic Revival is seen in the shape of the windows, which nevertheless retain the sash arrangement which is contrary to the Neo-Gothic spirit. Its proportions retain a horizontal tendency, the gable slope remains low and certain clasical details diminish the effect of the Gothic style on its composition. This kind of church combining the remains of the tradition of the latter part of the 18th century with a taste for the new Gothic Revival fashion seems to have coexisted with the more avant-garde manifestations of Gothic Revival. The Canadian Inventory of Historic Building catalogue includes such churches built until late in the 1860s (Fig. 10).

In the 1840s one of the most charming and original interpretations of the Gothic Revival began in the Maritimes. While preserving the simplicity of articulation of the early 19th century church, with its "rectangular box" plan and proportions always calculated to obtain a harmonious balance, the village and country church-builder began to use wood to reproduce (and sometimes even reinvent) the highly picturesque details of the Gothic repertoire. It includes miniature turrets, pinnacles, machicolated effects, finials, buttresses and Gothic bays with elegant tracery in three-dimensional shapes reproducing the effect of motifs sculpted in stone. This version of the style was appropriately named Carpenter's Gothic. As early as 1840, Saint Johns Church in Lunenburg, N.S. (Fig. 11) offers a perfect example of this very romantic approach to Gothic Revival that was to be perpetuated in all the Atlantic provinces (perhaps with greater austerity in Newfoundland) until the 1870s.10 Enthusiasm for this interpretation of Gothic Revival seems to have been shared by many religious denominations, since churches of this kind are found among Anglicans, Catholics, Baptists and Methodists (Figs. 11, 12, 13, 14).

During the first decade of the 19th century, Ontario was behind the Atlantic provinces and Quebec in terms of population increase and economic growth but rapidly caught up with them beginning in the 1840s. It is therefore understandable that Ontario did not, in the 1830s or 1840s, produce any works of Gothic Revival as imposing as Notre-Dame in Montreal, or even Trinity Church in Saint John's, N.B. However, Gothic Revival did appear in Ontario, combined with the tradition established by the Loyalists, just as it did in the Atlantic provinces. St. James Church in Maitland, for example, reveals the new style through details, pointed windows and crenelation applied to a general plan that complies with the spirit and proportion of the late 18th century vernacular tradition (Fig. 15). The masonry, which was used more commonly than in the Atlantic provinces, gave such churches a more austere and sturdy quality.

At a time when Gothic Revival was coming to the forefront in the east, the Prairie provinces remained a vast untouched region where the presence of the white man was limited to employees of powerful fur trade companies and missionaries dedicated to conversion of the Indians. The harsh living conditions, lack of skilled labour and almost total absence of a native architectural tradition were factors that would influence building construction until the end of the 19th century, resulting in extreme plainness and often naive handling of architectural styles.

Gothic Revival appeared there later than in the east and in a sporadic manner. Moreover, its use on the Prairies is limited to churches, where it is more a symbol of Christianity than an indication of a specific architectural style. However, despite basic differences, the first manifestations of the style are similar to those of the 1820s and 1830s in the east, in that the intellectual process is analogous. As in the east, this process proceeds from the known to the unknown — beginning with a traditional scheme based on the cultural heritage of the new settlers, to which Neo-Gothic details were added.

The oldest stone church on the Prairies, St. Andrew's-on-the-Red, was built in 1849 for the Scottish settlers established by Lord Selkirk on the banks of the Red River; it is a good example of the way in which Gothic Revival came to these remote lands.11 Its builder, William Cochrane, deliberately chose an austere building limited to a plan drawn from a distant architectural past — a rectangle dominated by a square tower at the front (Fig. 16). Its Neo-Gothic features are reduced to their simplest expression: pointed doors and windows. In works of this type, the masonry dominates the entire composition. Such buildings are the most sophisticated architectural works to be found on the Prairies in this period.

Moreover, St. Andrew's-on-the-Red seems to be a type of church that was perpetuated for rather a long time; in 1860, St. Clement's Church in Selkirk was built along the same lines (Fig. 17). This hybrid Gothic Revival style of church may even be said to continue without appreciable change until the turn of the century. Many wooden churches follow its example, such as the one in Star City, Saskatchewan, with its humble crenelated tower standing against the vast prairie sky (Fig. 18). If the tower is removed from this arrangement, there remains only the rectangular box and gable roof typical of many small churches on the Prairies.

In the Canadian West and particularly in Alberta and British Columbia where sufficiently wooded regions are found, log construction was often used even as late as the turn of the century. A horizontal arrangement was usually used and the logs were generally assembled by dovetail joints. There is one imposing exception: Christ Church in Millarville, Alberta (Fig. 19). Its footed post construction shows the original contribution of European immigrants in these newly cleared regions. It was indeed a German carpenter and contractor, Charles Shack, who decided to use this building method, which was unusual at the time.12 Other immigrants endeavoured to affirm their ethnic identity by reproducing church forms that were familiar in their homelands. Thus the Ukrainian Catholic church in Sandy Lake, Manitoba proclaims its ethnic character with graceful bulbous bell-towers. On the other hand, its Christian identity is shown by Gothic Revival fenestration (Fig. 20).

Domestic Architecture

We have to return to the east to discover how this style originated in dwellings. As with religious architecture, the tradition brought into Ontario and the Atlantic provinces by the Loyalists had established a type of house with a simplicity and balance that satisfied popular needs and tastes. The typical dwelling had one-and-a-half floors, with a central layout and a low gable roof. The first sign of Gothic Revival had little effect on this basic scheme; they took the form of a simple, small gable added above the central door with a decorative pointed window providing light to the second floor hall. These gables were sometimes embellished with a fretted fascia board in a timid expression of the picturesque aspect of the style and the windows often used the drip moulding of medieval origin. These first examples retain the horizontal proportions that were characteristic of the beginning of the 19th century (Fig. 21). Moreover, Gothic Revival details coexisted with classical details for a long time. The latter aspect is more visible in the houses of the Atlantic provinces, where many examples of the Gothic style still retain eaves ending in cornices, corner-boards fashioned as pilasters and a central door surrounded by a classical frame (Fig. 22).

In Ontario, this type of house was primarily distinguished from that of the Atlantic provinces by the material: stone or brick instead of clapboard. Classical detail is less abundant, but the oldest examples of Gothic Revival nevertheless retain the earthbound appearance of early 19th century dwellings and the very low slope of the central gable recalling the classical triangular pediment (Fig. 23).

in Ontario, where the Gothic Revival had more influence than anywhere else in Canada, the 1830s witnessed the appearance of Neo-Gothic features in another version of the Neo-Classical house that was primarily built in small towns. This was dubbed the Ontario Cottage, although the same type of building is found in other British colonies, where it was apparently introduced by discharged British soldiers.13 It was usually a house with one-and-a-half stories, a square plan, three bays on the main façade and a pavilion roof. The influence of the Gothic Revival is seen in the appearance of a small central gable with a fretted fascia board highlighting a Gothic window; sometimes the shape of the other windows and the door is also modified. In 1864, the Canadian Farmer (one of the first Canadian periodicals to include an architectural section) presented a similar composition to its readers; in 1873, the same building was again included at the general request of customers.14 This confirms the longevity of this type of design in Ontario (Fig. 24).

In the Atlantic provinces, however, Gothic Revival dwellings with pavilion roofs are found only exceptionally. There are nevertheless a few examples of this version with highly refined details ranking them among the most charming interpretations of Gothic Revival in this region of Canada. The house illustrated in Figure 25, with its very generous proportions, central plan and graceful pavilion roof, recalls the proud bearing of certain grand residences drawn from the 18th century tradition.

In Quebec, the Gothic Revival remains a minor factor in domestic architecture. There are two reasons for this. The style was associated with England from the outset and did not give rise to the patriotic enthusiasm found in Ontario and the Atlantic provinces. In addition, when Gothic Revival was taking on sizeable proportions elsewhere, the traditional Quebec house was going through a period of splendid vitality. This tradition based on two centuries of evolution was certainly not about to disappear in favour of a foreign style. It thus seems natural that the Gothic Revival showed up in the domestic sector primarily in the Eastern Townships, which were settled in the 20th century by a majority of anglophone immigrants from the United States. As a general rule, examples of Gothic Revival in this area are brick or clapboard dwellings related to the type derived from the Loyalist house. The house at 40 Gérin-Lajoie Street in Coaticook shows how richly decorative this type of architecture can become when executed by skilled hands (Fig. 26).

Public Architecture

Gothic Revival in Quebec is therefore not conspicuous in the number of buildings it influenced (at least during this romantic phase). However, the first school in Canada to reflect the Gothic Revival is found there. This building was erected in 1822 in an attempt to establish in Quebec City the British system of National Schools, a charitable institution devoted to the education of orphans.15 Nestled at the bottom of the slope on rue d'Auteull, this building retained the conservative articulation of space found in Quebec urban architecture at the beginning of the 20th century, but proclaimed its adherence to the Gothic style (recommended for all National Schools) by means of Tudor fenestration with medieval drip mouldings, crenelations on the roof and a porch with an elegant pointed window (Fig. 27).

The design for the Quebec Parliament provided a sort of introduction to the first wave of Gothic Revival buildings in Canada. Its example again jumped to the forefront in the analysis of the first Canadian public buildings influenced by the Gothic Revival. The first was a courthouse erected in London, Ontario by a British architect, John Ewart.16 Although the plan was much less complicated, the Ewart design shows spiritual ties with the composition of Wyatt — the same symmetrical main volume terminating in crenelated parapets (Fig. 28). In this case, the octagonal towers are more imposing than in the Wyatt design, where they were limited to small decorative protrusions; their presence at the four corners of the building reinforces the impression of power already suggested in the scheme of composition. In this particularly conservative sector, Gothic Revival did not make rapid progress. However, it is interesting to note that this particular aspect of the Gothic Revival, known as Castellated Gothic (or Castle Gothic) being particularly suitable as a symbol of the power of the law and the rigour of its principles, also dominated the design of two other courthouses in Ontario — the Wellington County Courthouse built in Guelph in 1841 (Fig. 29) and the Halton County Courthouse erected in Milton in 1854 by the firm Clark and Murray.17

The beginnings of Gothic Revival in various regions of Canada have been discussed in this first chapter. The first manifestations reflect a romantic approach. The outward signs of the Gothic style are used to represent the ideas it symbolizes: the strength and power of the judicial system in the case of the castle courthouses, the permanence of Christianity for churches (since the Gothic style left its mark in this area more than in any other) and attachment to the mother country, since England was seen at the time as the original source of the style. However, the various illustrated examples also seem disparate because of the very immensity of Canada. The main lines of development do not share a common climate, geographical location or history. In the eastern regions of the country, Gothic features are added to buildings derived from the tradition of the late 18th century. In the west, they are used to embellish buildings with a general appearance owing as much to the harsh living conditions as to architectural traditions, as well as to the spirit of initiative of the new settlers. But the romantic side of these various examples of the style, often built as much as 80 years apart, is accompanied by ignorance of structural principles and a timid use of the formal repertoire specific to this medieval style.

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