Antigonish and its Architects and Builders

"There is something 'essentially human' in all architecture."
A.H. Chapman, 1913

In Maritime Canada, the formal practice of architecture and the professional status of architects are a recent phenomenon. Despite the existence of a small nucleus of British-trained immigrant architects, native-born master builders and stone masons supervised the design and construction of many 19th- century buildings in Nova Scotia. Although there was no established School of Architecture in the region until 1961, the Halifax Mechanics Institute, starting in 1831, did offer lectures, a small selection of library books and magazines, and courses on architectural drawing for aspiring architects. This exposure to the basics was often followed by an apprenticeship in an architect's office. By 1887, with the establishment of the Victoria School of Art and Design, students had yet another venue in which to study the elements of architectural design. Finally, in 1896, McGill University established Canada’s first full-fledged Department of Architecture.

In other parts of the province, the training remained highly informal and the intricacies of materials, methods and specifications were learned on the job. The building site, shipyard, mill yard and quarry were the rude schoolrooms of the day as one progressed through the ranks from carpenter to builder to self-made architect. Builders supplemented this informal education by reading pattern books and periodicals such as The New England Farmer or Biddle’s Young Carpenter’s Assistant, which featured house styles and building trends. There was, of course, always the option of pursuing a more structured course of study in Great Britain or in the United States, where the Massachusetts Institute of Technology offered a formal programme in architecture in 1865. Despite the somewhat circuitous routes through art school, apprenticeship or university, Maritime architects were alert to changing architectural styles and served as conduits by which Victorian Gothic, Queen Anne Revival, Second Empire and Edwardian Classicism came to Nova Scotia. The following list includes biographical profiles on Antigonish’s more prominent architects and builders.

Quick List of Architects:

| Owen Hamill | Alexander McDonald | Alexander Munroe | John W. Chisholm | Francis S. Cunningham | John F. Teed | Sylvester O'Donoghue | Sydney Perry Dumaresq | Gustavus Bernasconi | William Critchlow Harris | Angus H. MacCormack | Jens F. Larson |

Owen [Ewen] Hamill [Hamil, Hamel] (1838-1868)

This Irish immigrant worked extensively throughout the Maritime region and left a distinctive mark on its ecclesiastical architecture. He supervised the remodelling of St. Mary's Basilica in Halifax and the construction of the stone Catholic church at Cheticamp, as well as the Roman Catholic Church of Stella Maris and St. Andrew's Kirk in Pictou. One of his final commissions was St Ninian's Roman Catholic Cathedral in Antigonish, where he supervised the early implementation of design specifications prepared by the Montreal architect, A. Lévesque. The Cathedral was allegedly the largest church east of Montreal at the time of its dedication in September 1874.

Owen Hamill's Business Notice [4 June 1867, Colonial Standard]

Back to List

Alexander McDonald (1814-1861)

Alexander McDonald, known locally as "Sandy the Carpenter", designed many key architectural landmarks in eastern Canada. McDonald's design repertoire was shaped by American pattern books, and his work demonstrates his particular fondness for Greek Temple Revival. He designed and supervised the construction of the County Courthouses in Richmond County (1846-7), Antigonish (1855) and Sherbrooke (1858-1860). He has also been credited with the design for the Queen's Hotel (1853) and St. James' Church (1860), both in Antigonish. His Last Will and Testament confirms that he did contract work on Captain Dan MacDonald's house, John Ban MacDonald's house and the Morristown Chapel. The Will also provides a detailed and invaluable inventory of the tools of his trade.

Back to List

Alexander Munroe (1827-1900)

Little is known about Alexander Munroe. This native of Merigomish, Nova Scotia oversaw the completion of St. James Presbyterian Church after the premature death of Alexander McDonald. He lived in Antigonish with his sister, Isabella, an unmarried housekeeper, until his death in May 1900. His Casket obituary describes him as a "quiet, peace-loving man and a good citizen."

Back to List

John W. Chisholm (1819-1901)

This local architect was a native of St. Andrews. His best known work is the Kirk Building on Main Street. His obituary highlights his reputation as a "kind and honest man". This is borne out by his will which left the "residue" of his estate to the Rev. James Fraser, parish priest at St. Andrews, to distribute to "poor or needy persons". His will also refers to his "2 drawing squares" and "chest of carpenter's tools", the builder's trusty companions.

Back to List

Francis Cunningham (1824-1901)

Francis Cunningham was one of Antigonish's leading 19th-century house builders/carpenters. He is credited with the construction of Main Street's Cunningham Hotel (later Merrimac) in 1859. Two extant examples of his work are "Sugar Hill Farm" (1848) at Harbour Centre and "Frank's Villa" [105 Church Street] (1869); both houses served as Cunningham's personal residences. These structures testify to Cunningham's high level of craftsmanship, his preference for understated simplicity instead of florid pretension, and his ability to blend vernacular tradition and popular architectural idioms of the day. House building was a generational tradition for the Cunninghams. The 1891 census also lists John G. Cunningham and John McLean Cunningham as house carpenters.

Back to List

John F. Teed (1830-1901)

This third-generation Loyalist was one of Dorchester, New Brunswick's most celebrated master builders. Teed's reputation was sealed with the construction of Mount Allison's Centennial College Hall (1884) and Owens Art Gallery (1895). In 1895, he supervised the expansion of St. Francis Xavier University's Xavier Hall with the addition of a new two-storey west wing.

Back to List

Sylvester O'Donoghue (c. 1838-1903)

Sylvester O'Donoghue ranked among the elite of Antigonish's 19th-century master builders. This native of County Wicklow, Ireland, supervised the massive construction of St Ninian's Cathedral. His involvement in this project is immortalized in the poetry of Alexander MacDonald of Keppoch: "The Irishman with great skill, Supervised the combination of wood, lime and stone, To obtain an artistic result. He designed a means of elevating, The materials to the highest parts, And with commanding voice, He directed their position." Canso's Catholic Church Stella Maris (1891), a fine specimen of Gothic architecture, and the Church of the Immaculate Conception (1897) at Mabou, are also his handiwork. Donoghue was equally adept in wood and stone construction and demonstrated remarkable technical and mechanical versatility. He was also responsible for the addition of a new tower, spire and belfry to St. Patrick's in Merland (1891), a three-wing extension to the Tracadie Monastery (1894), and a 1 1/4 mile span of the Inverness Railway (1899), constructed with stone quarried near Cribben's Point. On his death, the Casket summed up his life in these words: "He was a most competent workman, being a skilled draughtsman and carpenter, and an artist in carving either in wood or stone."

Back to List

Sydney Perry Dumaresq (1875-1943)

Sydney Dumaresq belonged to a family dynasty of architects. After graduating from Acadia College in 1898, he joined his father's Halifax firm as an apprentice and eventually partner. In 1909, three years after his father's death, he entered into a two-year partnership with the acclaimed Halifax architect, Andrew R. Cobb. S. P. Dumaresq's career, especially in public building, was a productive and mobile one. His prodigious output included banks, hospitals, courthouses and academies throughout Nova Scotia and even in Bermuda. He left his mark on Antigonish where his firm designed the Royal Bank (1905) and the Bank of Nova Scotia (1926).

Back to List

Gustavus Bernasconi(1845-1931)

Bernasconi, a Swiss-born civil engineer, was a graduate of the Zurich Polytechnical College. After emigrating to Canada, he entered the employ of the Department of Public Works in 1872 as a civil engineer. He was one-time manager of the local branch of the Federal Public Works in Antigonish. In 1898, his design expertise was brought to bear on St. Paul's Church where he was a parishioner. 66 Hawthorne, which later became the House of Providence, once served as Bernasconi's residence. He retired to Granville Ferry in 1923 where he died eight years later.

Back to List

William Critchlow Harris(1854-1913)

The English-born William Harris was one of Eastern Canada's most talented late 19th-century architects. Raised and trained in Canada, he pursued an active career in Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and Manitoba. His architectural legacy is vast--churches, banks, office buildings, courthouses, libraries and houses. His most notable creation is St. Paul's Anglican Church, Charlottetown. Harris was responsible for the design of at least four buildings in Antigonish: the Celtic Hall (1905), the Royal George (1907), 149 Main Street (1910) and an addition to St. Martha's Hospital (1912). As an architect, Harris stressed picturesque composition and enriched surfaces. He was particularly fond of towers, verandahs, hipped gables and roof dormers. His work eloquently exemplified the High Victorian architectural style of the day.

Back to List

Angus H. MacCormack [MacCormick] (1882-1957)

The Sydney-born MacCormack became one the region's most prominent architects during Cape Breton's building boom in the early 20th century. As noted by Maud Rosinski, author of Architects of Nova Scotia: A Biographial Dictionary 1605-1950, "Rarely have so many architect-designed buildings been erected in one place in such a short period." A St. Francis Xavier University graduate, McCormack "trained a new generation of draughtsmen and architects" and supervised many of Sydney's large-scale commission projects such as the Sydney City Hospital, St. Theresa's Church and the Isle Royal Hotel. His work can also be found on the St. F.X. campus where, in 1938, he oversaw the design specifications of Morrison Hall, the creation of the New England architect, Jens F. Larson.

Back to List

Jens F. Larson (1891-1981)

J.F. Larson left a distinctive stamp on the character and appearance of the St. F.X. campus. This Boston-born architect, trained at Harvard University School of Applied Science, was a much acclaimed specialist in the design of colleges and private schools during the 1920s to 1960s. His accomplishments include the Baker Library, Tuck School of Business Administration, and the Chapel at Wabash College. In 1936, St. F.X. launched an ambitious plan for expansion and retained Larson's services. He designed no fewer than twelve buildings at St. F.X. Each, with its striking balance of utility and art, formed part of a handsome stage and backdrop for university activities.

Back to List

| BACK |

HTML by J.Symonds.
For info on this project, please see Project Outline.