National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Bulletin 25, 1975

Annual Index
Author & Subject

Click figure 6 here for an enlarged image

Modern Gothic in Canada

by R. H. Hubbard

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6

His first important design was for a complex of buildings at Victoria College, Toronto (20) (fig. 6), the gift of the Hart A. Massey estate. First to be built, in 1910, were a smallish library (now the United Church Archives) and a good-sized refectory, Burwash Hall. These were followed in 1913 by a range of college residences adjoining Burwash. The new buildings were grouped round an open quadrangle, of which an older red-sandstone academic building formed one element. Burwash is a Perpendicular hall with large tracery windows, a porch on one side, and a bay on the other, and a plain interior with a sturdy timber roof. The library has strongly designed porches on two sides and a charming tie-beam roof inside. All the buildings are related to one another by their continuous horizontal lines, powerful massing, and the related planes of their stonework. The whole design represents an English style freely interpreted in a "robust and masculine" way (21) suited to the Canadian environment. The detailing is excellent if restrained. It was the openings in particular that tested the design abilities of the "Gothic man"; and here the windows, entrance porches, and bays were so scaled as to preserve the integrity of the fabric while adding only those accents of light and shade that were needed to avoid severity. The smaller details of mouldings, tracery, and decorative carving also seem "Canadian" in their restraint as against the richness of Cram's work.

Sproatt's second great commission came hard on the heels of Victoria College. In 1911, the Massey Foundation, whose presiding genius was Vincent Massey, (22) dean of residence at Victoria just before the war, began Hart House (23) (fig. 7) as a men's union for the University of Toronto. With but a few precedents to go on, Hart House with its common rooms and library, music and debating rooms, theatre and chapel, faculty club, and complete athletic facilities was the pioneer of the many university unions on the continent. A main block arranged round a large court contains these facilities and is linked by an arcade to the turreted Great Hall for dining, the antecedent by a year or two of Cram's Graduate Hall at Princeton. After delays in its construction, Hart House was opened in 1919. The Soldiers' Tower, completing the entire design, was added in 1924.

As at Victoria College, the various elements of the exterior structure are varied in design yet successfully welded together. The effect of unity is enhanced by the green slate of all the roofs and by the sandstone walls in random course providing uniform surfaces. These surfaces are uninterrupted by eye-catching projections, for the decorative carving, fine as it is, never competes with the overall effect of compactness. The main interiors display a rich variety of timber roofs, that of the Great Hall (fig. 8) being a splendid double hammer-beam. The wainscot in this room is also fine, its individual panels bearing the shields of the universities of the world, painted by the accompli shed heraldic artist A. Scott Carter. Sproatt's loving care for every detail is here apparent in the enclosed stair, chandeliers, furniture, the stained glass, and the varied and delightful window tracery. Yet the interiors remain domestic, avoiding the super-splendour of such American Gothic achievements as the Harkness Memorial at Yale - where the undergraduate joke has it that the telephone boxes were designed in the form of confessionals.

On a smaller scale, and thus of even more compact design, is Bishop Strachan School, Toronto (24) (fig. 9) built in 1913. Its square tower, inspired by but far from copied from Oxford or Cambridge, strikes a "modem" note by its insistence on simple geometry and strict economy of line - qualities which also adapt it to the Canadian landscape. There is a jewel-like bay with pinnacles and chapel porch with niches and carved spandrels. These and all other details are finely executed yet kept well within bounds. The chapel interior is one of Sproatt's more charming works.

After the war he designed the chapel of Ridley College, St Catharines (25) (fig. 10), in even simpler, more solid and more square forms than before. The crenellated walls rise almost to crest level of the roof, and over the entrance they break into an open arcade. The severity of the interior, with its small high windows, is relieved by a large reredos. The large stones of the walls give a rougher effect than is usual in Sproatt's work.

Two buildings of 1932 mark the end of Sproatt's Gothic career. Emmanuel College, Toronto, (26) a divinity faculty attached to Victoria, harmonizes with the buildings of 1910 and 1913. But its design, affected by the modern movement or the rigours of the Depression ( or both) is plain, spare, and rectangular. On the three-storey residence wing detail is kept to a bare minimum; but blankness is avoided by crisp outlines, by a simple variation in fenestration, and by a token use of Perpendicular tracery in windows with small lights and sharp-edged mullions. A similar economy of design is found in Knox Church, Ottawa (27) (fig. II). Here too the exterior is a simple cubic mass with an extraordinarily solid tower and stonework that is rugged if finely grained. The smallish windows with their compact, clean tracery are set nearly flush with the walls. On the inside are smooth cut-stone walls, a low-pitched timber roof and a massive stone pulpit and lectern. A reredos designed on a shallow curving plan to accommodate elders' stalls is the one slightly jarring note in an otherwise rectangular "Scots" interior that is spacious and resonant. The east window is filled with excellent modem glass by the Scottish artist William Wilson.

Sproatt was by no means the only practitioner of Gothic in Canada or even Toronto. The senior of them was Edward J. Lennox (1855-1923), architect of a number of late Victorian buildings in Toronto including the Richardsonian Toronto City Hall of 1890. In 1910, he essayed the Modem Gothic in the very large St Paul's, Toronto. (28) Here he betrayed a lingering Victorianism in his of the "Pointed" of the Ecclesiologists rather than the Perpendicular of Cram and the modem English. The design hangs together imperfectly: on the exterior because of the monotonous repetition of lancet windows, and on the interior because of a curious east end with three large decorated windows and three arches below, filled to overflowing with an elaborate reredos. There are enormous rose windows in the transepts, and a timber roof where a vault would have been expected in so big an interior. The wide proportions of St Paul's were probably dictated by the site of the building and its purpose as a Low-Church preaching hall.

Contemporary with Lennox was Eden Smith (1858-1949), an English-trained architect of refreshing originality. In 1893, he designed the lamented St John's Garrison Church, Toronto, (29) which, forty-five years before St James's, Vancouver, achieved a drastic simplification of the Gothic. This interesting building was probably unique as an example of Gothic as affected by Art Nouveau, a style which became popular in Toronto. (Smith was the designer in 1913 of the Studio Building, Toronto, associated with the Group of Seven, with its echoes of Mackintosh's Glasgow School of Art.)

Next PageJohn A. Pearson (1867-1940)

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