In 1909, James Thomas Davis, a Square Mile entrepreneur and contractor commissioned Edward and William Maxwell to design a mansion suitable for a man of his stature. J.T. Davis was involved in important construction projects such as canals, piers and bridges, often government commissions. His firm built several portions of the Lachine Canal in Montreal and salvaged the Quebec Bridge venture, rebuilding the substructure after the 1907 collapse. His father William Davis had founded the firm in Ottawa; his sons Michael and James joined it after studies in engineering.
Both J.T. Davis and his wife Gertrude Devlin, born in Trois-Rivières, were Catholics. They married in 1891 and raised three daughters and three sons. They also maintained a large household staff of a cook, housekeepers, maids, manservants and governess. This large household and the client’s social position were to be validated in a particularly imposing residence. Moreover, Mr. Davis, acting as general contractor, would build the house himself, ensuring the use of modern technology, while the architects called upon a team of artisans and artists for decoration, furniture, painting, sculpture, wall papering and stained glass windows.
THE DAVIS HOUSE
The J.T. Davis House (fig.01), one of the Maxwells’ most imposing residential designs, is an Elizabethan Tudor-styled edifice of red pressed brick with a sandstone base on Drummond Street, just north of the C.R. Hosmer House (106). The lot that Davis chose originally belonged to sugar magnate John Redpath, the original stone contractor for the Lachine Canal. A house belonging to Mrs. Benjamin Hall stood on the site when Davis purchased it and was demolished immediately. The J.T. Davis House, which features Dutch dormer windows, high gables, tall chimneys and steep roofs, shows the flexibility and skill of the architects. It combines the technical and compositional talents of Edward Maxwell and his younger brother, the Beaux-Arts trained William Sutherland Maxwell. At the request of their patron, the architects used a concealed steel and concrete frame to support the structure and supplied electrical lighting to the house. The design is both balanced and vibrant, mixing Edwardian and Classical detailing, inspired by English residential examples, with the most up-to-date construction principles. It must be considered a key residential project in the architects’ career, as it combines many features found in their other designs.
Firstly, placing the house perpendicular to the street with the main elevation facing south with views to the St-Lawrence River provides an orientation on a long east-west axis, with smaller projections to the south framing the main entrance. Edward Maxwell himself used a similar scheme for his own house (504) on Peel Street, although it faced the north. In contrast to the latter residence, the Eugene Lafleur (477), the Charles F. Smith (608) and the H. Lovett (486) houses or semi-detached houses such as William S. Maxwell and Edward M. Renouf (582) on Pine Street, the Davis House has the sprawling proportions of a country house. Its site extends west to Mountain Street, taking its cue from the massive C. Hosmer residence built six years earlier immediately to the south.
Secondly, the house façade has a slightly off-centre symmetry and plan that is typical of many similar, but usually smaller, houses of the neighborhood such as the Chipman (266) and Martin (267) Houses. The placement of the ground floor main public rooms (dining and drawing rooms) at opposite ends of the house, with a large hall in-between, the smaller reception room flanking the main entrance, and the north facing billiard room is consistent with the firm’s residential designs.
Thirdly, the copious and skillful integration of art and decorative elements culminates the Maxwell tradition of working closely with decorative artists. For each room a specific style was adopted, governing the color schemes, the furniture selection and the architectural motifs. A great variety of ambiance was achieved, with some interiors looking restrained and subdued while others almost ostentatious in displaying the richness and exuberance of the details. No expense and effort was spared to obtain the nec plus ultra in North American domestic design of the time.
LAYOUT AND CIRCULATION
The modeling of the house reveals a logical, axial organization in plan, not immediately discernable if one considers only the romantic, asymmetrical façades. Each floor is divided into three zones, from west to east, each aligned on a secondary axis perpendicular to the main longitudinal axis. The architects playfully organized main rooms and transition spaces along these axes, achieving an overall sense of symmetry and balance. A large tiled terrace runs along the south façade. At its center, a wrought iron staircase leads to the entrance loggia. From this central point, a strong horizontal spine is defined, and anchored at each level by the vertical circulation spine of the main staircase.
Elevations and volumetric masses are easily read from the central focal point, flanked by the west and east-side southern projections framing the entrance loggia and gallery (fig.02). The west wing has a round bay window (fig.03); a Palladian window lights the central bay while the shallower east wind has a simpler set of three windows. Beyond the bay window projections, a final wing on either side stretches the house length to a maximum. The south façade has a wing/bay window/centre/bay window/wing rhythm that clearly expresses the room layout behind. Once the modular organization is grasped, devising a virtual walking tour of each floor becomes simpler.
The main entrance door at the center of the composition leads to the vestibule (fig.04), coatroom and powder room. To the west lies the more intimate dining and billiard room area (left hand side on the floor plans) serviced by a large corridor off the staircase hall. A smaller corridor leads to the breakfast room (fig.05), an oval space capped by a shallow dome and equipped with a vault. The table, dresser and chairs were custom-made with curved backs to fit this room exactly. The pantry is placed in between the breakfast and dining rooms. It was originally equipped with no less than three dumbwaiters and has white-tiled surfaces (dado and flooring). The service stair and elevator shaft are ample, in proportion with this vast house. At the end of the east corridor, double doors visible from the drawing room open onto the majestic dining room (fig.06). Heavy mahogany dining set and dresser were deemed suitable, for almost every wood and plaster surface is profusely ornamented with carved panels, moldings, pilasters and decoration that referred to seventeenth-century English models. The west wall has a spectacular fireplace with doors on either side leading to the palm house, a semi-circular room with views towards Mountain Street.
The third room of the west wing is removed from the extravagant excesses of the dining room décor. The billiard room (fig.07)entrance door has a stained glass panel depicting a squirrel (fig.08). The room decoration is one of the best Canadian examples of the Arts and Crafts movement. The natural chestnut wall paneling is decorated with hand-carved designs of Canadian flora and fauna (fig.09), as was the large billiard table. The brass door handles and plates were hammered by hand into Art Nouveau leaf shapes. Even the fireplace tiles were handcrafted by the Pewabic Pottery in Detroit. The fireplace alcove is topped by a segmental arch and is flanked by cabinets for billiard equipment including custom-made queue racks. Especially noteworthy are the three murals (fig.10) painted by Maurice Cullen (1866-1934). The west wall has large windows opening to a loggia; from there, a stair used to lead to the grounds.
The impressive central hall (fig.11), on either side of the main stair, is adorned (fig.12)with wood paneling, pillars, ceiling beams, stained-glass windows, and an ample stone fireplace in the Arts and Crafts tradition. There are benches on either side of the hearth, in addition to an inglenook nestled in the angle of the stair. The horizontal expanse of the hall, its soft northern light and its serene modular proportions, create a restful hub at the core of the house. It prepares the eye for and provides a balanced counterpoint to the vertical surge of the massive staircase. The dramatic and generous stairwell is the vertical pivot that pulls together the central circulation spaces of each floor. No less than $6500 (an amount which alone would have been enough to buy an entire house) was spent on the stair railing (fig.13), carved from massive oak panels by sculptor Félix Routhier (d. 1916). His skill is obvious in the hand-carved pierced leaf scrolls and the newel posts of the balustrade.
To the east, accessed either directly from the hall or the vestibule, is the reception room (fig.14, fig.15). This well lit, cozy sitting area is rendered in the Adam style. In many households this room acted somewhat as a buffer or an informal space to greet visitors without encroaching on the more private and family-oriented rooms elsewhere. It was suitable for cordial, impromptu meetings, or to provide a respite from the more crowded rooms during large parties. The grandest room is obviously the large drawing room at the easternmost extremity of the house (right on the plan), with its large bay window with banquettes on axis with the central hall. The massive white marble fireplace topped by a mirror is aligned on the perpendicular secondary axis and responds to the window at the south, facing the river and overlooking the terrace. In this room the decoration is light and airy, with a painted medallion of cherubs (fig.16), bronze lighting fixtures; walls were painted white and gold and ornamented with crowns and garlands. The inspiration was eighteen-century France and Louis XVI furniture was selected.
Ascending the grand staircase is a powerful experience (fig.17), with the changing play of light on the wallpaper trickling down from the stained glass windows or bursting through the southern Palladian window. Originally the stair landing was continued into a south-facing sitting room framed by a pair of columns. This room, now enclosed, opens onto a balcony (referred to as the gallery on the drawings) above the main entrance. Again this central space affords a commanding view in four directions. Round arches signal the corridors to the west and east wings.
The daughters’ bedrooms and the library occupied the west side. The latter is entered from the stair landing through a wood entrance (fig.18) capped by a Chippendale broken pediment. As in the dining room, the library furniture (fig.19) was somewhat massive and solemn, with some book shelving on the north wall. A sturdy desk, easy chairs and a couch faced the fireplace alcove to the south while the west windows opened unto a gallery. Two girls’ bedrooms occupy the rest of the west wing, the larger one above the dining room with exquisite, gracious detailing, each feature carefully repeated twice (dressing table, bureau, bed, easy chair, closet with a mirrored door) as it had two occupants. The smaller girl’s bedroom (fig.20)had similar, delicate details, after French eighteenth century models.
The master bedroom suite occupies the east end of this floor and is comprised of an east facing bedroom (fig.21) above the drawing room, with a bay window. A smaller master bedroom is situated above the reception room. The suite includes a remarkable oratory (fig.22), built in 1915 from sketches by William Maxwell. This tiny space, originally meant as a linen closet, was adorned with oak paneling, an altar, blue and silver stencil floral motifs (fig.23)on a ground of Japanese grasscloth. The whole decoration creates a shimmering silvery effect, highlighted at one end with a stained glass window representing the Virgin and Child (fig.24) prepared by Archibald Davies (1878-1953) of the Bromsgrove Guild in England. The Guild also realized the ornamental sculpture with animal and vegetal motifs. William Maxwell carefully coordinated the design and supervised the placement of furniture, velvet draperies, wallpaper, the overhanging lamp, the altar and the prie-dieu. Samples of colors and textures for the draperies and the carpet were collected and annotated. For instance, two sample cards dated July 2, 1915 (fig.25; fig.26), present 5 tones of blue for “Rug and Curtain Color Suggestions” and a green or red choice for “Quality of Silk Velvet for the Curtains”. A third sample card dated July 28, 1915 (fig.27) contains precise notes and specifications as to the color, finishes, sizes and pricing of curtains and the rug. A fourth card (fig.28) dated January 26, 1916 provides further notes on the rug (quality, color, depth of tone). A final example is the silver metallic thread and fringes, dated 1915 (fig.29); all these artifacts bear witness to the patient documentation and decision process that lead to the final design of this remarkable room The carpet (no longer in place) was woven in Ireland. This space is unique in Montreal and is well preserved save for some statuettes that were removed from their niches.
ATTIC FLOOR and BASEMENT
The attic (second) floor includes a servants’ area in the west wing, with rooms for the governess, the housekeeper, three servants’ rooms and a cedar closet. The stair landing/sitting sequence is repeated at the centre and leads to the boys’ bedroom wing. Three individual rooms, a dressing room and two bathrooms comprises this suite. The room decoration is less ornate than the floors below but nevertheless comply with the strict axial plan and clarity.
The basement features a south-facing kitchen (fig.30), below the dining room, a surprisingly dignified space with white tiling and a strict layout. It is surrounded by smaller storage rooms, the main pantry with its three dumbwaiters, one of them reaching every floor, the other two ending up in the serving pantry on the ground floor. Between the kitchen to the west and laundry facilities to the east, storage spaces, wine cellar, manservant’s room, coal storage and furnace room are lined up along the central corridor. The organizational axis is carried through even at this most trivial level, thoughtfully integrated to the whole into an organic, efficient machine for civilized family life.
In 1955, McGill purchased the Davis House from Mrs. Davis, the widow of James T. Davis, who had died in 1928. It is now the home of the School of Physical and Occupational Therapy, McGill University. The house still retains most of its original design and details. A combined coachman’s residence and stable was built at the southwest corner of the property, overlooking Mountain Street. That auxiliary building is currently being renovated and recycled into student’s residences for McGill University.
“An Oratory in a Montreal Residence.” Construction. Vol. XIII, No. 9, (September 1920), p. 269-275.
Gotch, J. Alfred. “Residence on Drummond Street, Montreal.” Construction. Vol. VII, No. 7, (July 1914), p. 267-274.
“Maison James Thomas Davis.” Répertoire d’architecture traditionnelle sur le territoire de Communauté urbaine de Montréal. Architecture domestique I: Les résidences. Montreal, QC: Service de la planification du territoire, Communauté urbaine de Montréal, 1987, p. 170-175.
Pepall, Rosalind M. “Craftsmen and Decorative Artists” In The Architecture of Edward and W.S. Maxwell. Montreal, QC: Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 1991, p. 43-49.
Pepall, Rosalind M. “J.T. Davis House.” In The Architecture of Edward and W.S. Maxwell. Montreal, QC: Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 1991, p. 136-138.
Rémillard, François and Brian Merrett. “Maison James Thomas Davis.” In Demeures bourgeoises de Montréal: le Mille Carré Doré, 1850-1930. Montreal, QC: Editions du Méridien, 1986, p. 184-187.
v Wood, William, Ed. “James T. Davis, Builder and Contractor, Montreal.” In The Storied Province of Quebec. Toronto, ON: Dominion Publishing Company, 1931, Vol. 4, p. 493-494.