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

Bulletin 25, 1975

Annual Index
Author & Subject

Modern Gothic in Canada

by R. H. Hubbard

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

Younger than Smith but more traditional in style was Sproatt's early associate John A. Pearson (30) (1867- 1940). He arrived in Canada from England in time to take part in the rebuilding of St John's, Newfoundland, after the great fire of 1892. During a long career in Toronto, he designed buildings in a variety of styles, among them two important ventures into the Gothic. First came the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament in Ottawa (31) after the fire of 1916. Despite the present-day fame of Pearson's new buildings, contemporary critics (32) deplored his dependence on the design of the first building (as echoed in the surviving East and West blocks on Parliament Hill), virile as Fuller's and Laver's "Victorian Baroque" had been in 1859. Thus Pearson not only (and rightly) used the sale stone for the walls but perpetuated the endless rows of lancet windows, the mansard roofs, and even the roof-crestings of the old Houses of Parliament - all in a building considerably larger than its predecessor. It is a symmetrical design consisting of a long façade with wings behind ranged round two courts. Besides the two chambers, for Senate and House of Commons respectively, it houses offices and a multitude of other modern services. With its carved-stone decorations still unfinished after fifty years, the interior inevitably gives the impression of a Gothic skin stretched over a steel frame. Yet, with the very tall Peace Tower added in 1927, the building presents a most striking silhouette on its commanding site above the Ottawa River. Of this famous silhouette, known to every Canadian, the circular Library of Parliament, surviving from the fire, forms an indispensible part.

Pearson's other (33) important building was Trinity College, (34) Toronto (1923-1925) (fig. 12). This was another attempt to recall the Victorian age: the building of a new college after it had become part of the University of Toronto, and abandoned Kivas Tully's Gothic Revival building (1851) in Queen Street. Thus the entrance porch, surmounted by a bay window and an elaborate lantern tower, was repeated from the old building for the sake of continuity of tradition, and lent to the new Trinity the high-and-narrow proportions of the old. Pearson's master-plan included hall, chapel, and college residences grouped round two quadrangles, but only the street-front was completed in 1925. Later the plan was drastically scaled down by his former associate Allan George (35) (1874-1961). Two sides of a single quadrangle were added in 1941 (36) and a fourth a few years later. One of the new wings included Strachan Hall, a Jacobean refectory with a steep-pitched hammer-beam roof, and fine panelling inside.

Another Gothic designer was Alfred H. Chapman (1878-1949). In 1908, in partnership with James Oxley (1883-1957), he was responsible for one of the earlier examples of the style, Rosedale Presbyterian Church, (37) Toronto. This small building is an effective exterior mass with its L-plan and curious little tower, but it is less successful on the interior because of a small cluttered chancel. Its window tracery , in comparison with Sproatt's, is rather loose and lifeless. In 1912, Chapman & Oxley won a competition for Knox College, Toronto. (38) Here also their design is pleasing as a whole but undistinguished in detail. The same applies to Havergal College, Toronto (39) (1927), a fortress-like building which suffers in comparison to the domestic charm of Sproatt's Bishop Strachan School.

The Toronto architects of the period also included Frank Wickson (1861-1936), who had a distant connection with H. H. Richardson, and who in 1912 submitted an unsuccessful Romanesque design for Knox College. He is chiefly known for Timothy Eaton Memorial Church, Toronto (40) (1912), an imposing Gothic edifice somewhat more interesting outside than in. Another was]. Gibb Morton (d. after 1941) who redesigned the brick Victorian of Metropolitan United Church (41) into something cleaner and simpler after a fire in 1928. But it was Forsey Page (1885-1970) who created one of the more original designs of the period. In St Clement's, Toronto (1927), he combined Early English and other stylistic elements freely and vigorously. Eric Arthur has compared the chancel to a stage-set for a miracle play. (42)

The quality of Sproatt's work was most closely emulated by the firms of William Lyon Somerville (1886-1965) and of J. Francis Brown (1867-1942). (43) In 1929, the two offices collaborated to produce the pleasing designs for the new McMaster University, Hamilton (44) (fig. 13), which after Victoria College and Hart House is probably the best Gothic group in Canada. In University College (the original arts buildings) the general lines and massing, the handsome restrained detail of the tracery and carved decorations, and the fine timber roofs are all reminiscent of Sproatt. A rather squat tower, inspired by Magdalen College, Oxford, is the main accent on the exterior, and Convocation Hall is a pleasant timber-roofed interior, domestic in character. Hamilton College (the original science building) presented the usual difficulties in fit ting laboratories into a Gothic costume, but the Refectory and student residences were pleasant essays in brick Tudor.

Amongst the other examples of these architects' work, Somerville's conversion in 1934 of the cluttered Victorian interior of MacNab Street Presbyterian Church, Hamilton, (45) into a handsome space lit by modern Scottish glass is a model of its genre. F. Bruce Brown's Toronto churches, severely simple and effective in their design, include All Saints', Kingsway (1951) (fig. 14), St Timothy's, and Islington United Church. (46) Reminiscent of Sproatt, and of Cram's small churches (St Paul's, Yonkers), they are the penultimate examples of Modern Gothic in Toronto.

Meanwhile Modern Gothic had enjoyed a career of sorts in other cities. In Hamilton, William R. Souter (b. 1894) and Gordon J. Hutton (1881-1942) designed the Cathedral of Christ the King, (47) with Cram as "critical adviser." Standing out impressively on its elevated site, this aisleless building of 1931, is, however, too meagre in substance and too elaborate in decoration to comprise a satisfactory unit. Its basic design is Perpendicular, the bell tower being modelled on the Boston Stump; but the fan-vaulted interior glows in a most un-English way with Italian marble and German glass. In Ottawa, in addition to Sproatt's Knox Church, a fine spacious choir was added to Christ Church Cathedral (48) in 1932 by A. J. Hazelgrove (1884-1958). In Vancouver, several churches by R. P. Twizell (1879-1963?) are worthy of note and Thornton Sharp's (1880-1963) Chown Church, (49) follows the general example of A. G. Scott's St James's in its free modern use of Gothic motifs.

Montreal was the only other city with Toronto's concentration of architects. But as French-speaking architects did not readily respond to Cram and the English Perpendicular, (50) Modern Gothic was largely the preserve of the English-speaking, who were naturally fewer in number than those in Toronto. Philip John Turner (1876-1943), who was trained in the Barry office and taught at McGill for many years, conceived the interesting St Philip's, Montreal West (51) (1930), on the massive lines of an English parish church. Percy Nobbs (1875-1964), another McGill professor, designed the McGill Pathological Institute (52) (1923) in a step-gabled Scottish version of late Gothic. But the leading Gothic designer was Harold L. Fetherstonhaugh (b. 1887) who in 1929 won a competition for St Andrew and St Paul, Montreal. (53) This building has a monumental exterior and an impressive vaulted interior, giving it an air of an American big-city church like Cram's St Thomas's, New York. More modest is his Divinity Hall, McGill, (54) where the chapel interior has a comfortable English atmosphere.

By the fifties, the International Style in architecture had made its belated appearance in Canada and before long swept all else before it. The Gothic gave way even in the design of churches and universities, not only because of the change of fashion but because of the prohibitive cost of anything more elaborate than the steel or concrete box. The lateness of the change may in itself: however, be an indication not only of Canadian conservatism but of the success the Gothic had enjoyed at the hands of Canadian architects. Their simplification of the style to the point of cubic massiveness may some day be recognized as a sincere effort towards modernism in Canadian terms. Cherished by its patrons, the Modern Gothic reflected the Canadian taste for simplicity and reticence and was a modestly distinctive product of its country and its age.

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