BUILDING FOR POWER:
THE MAXWELL PRACTICE AND
THE MONTREAL BUSINESS COMMUNITY
One of the most remarkable aspects of the Maxwell practice had little to do with architecture - the stability of the Maxwells' clientele, whether individuals or companies, over a thirty-year period was nothing short of extraordinary. Families and firms who first employed Edward Maxwell in the early 1890s were still the backbone of the partnership in 1923 when Edward died.1 This achievement cannot be explained simply in terms of a prevailing architectural fashion, for the styles in vogue evolved significantly over this period. In large measure the explanation of this client loyalty and, indeed, of the Maxwell firm's success in general lies in the broader social history of the Montreal business community.
In 1891 Edward Maxwell returned to Montreal from Boston to oversee the building of the imposing new offices of what had been the pre-eminent business institution of nineteenth-century English Montreal, the Board of Trade. Undoubtedly this was a great opportunity for the twenty- three- year- old architect. The Board of Trade had been, since its inception in 1825, the principal pressure group for the city's English-speaking merchants. It was, however, an organization whose days of glory were already a thing of the past, for Montreal no longer owed its prominence in the economic life of the Dominion to its historic role as a mercantile centre. The site of Canada's Industrial Revolution at mid-century, Montreal was, by the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the financial, industrial and transportation metropolis of Canada. The city would maintain this leading role in the country's economy until the Great Depression of the 1930s.
If the Board of Trade project provided Edward Maxwell's entrée into the business community, and there is no doubt that it did, it was only indirectly responsible for his rapid success in establishing himself in the city. Early in January 1892, Henry Vincent Meredith, a member of the Board and at the time the assistant general manager of the Bank of Montreal, commissioned Maxwell to build him a new home.2 Meredith was married to the niece of Sir Hugh Allan, one of the most important capitalists in late nineteenth century Canada. The large red brick mansion Maxwell designed for the Merediths, situated on the southwest corner of Pine and Peel kitty-corner to Allan's own "Ravenscrag", was widely acclaimed, and the Young Maxwell would design five more buildings for members of the Allan family by 1897.
Important as the Allan family connection was, the Meredith commission was significant for other reasons. Vincent Meredith was a rising star in the firmament of Montreal business. For the next twenty years he would be a member of the tight-knit group of bankers and industrialists who charted the course for one of North America's most important financial groups, one that was based upon the Bank of Montreal and the Canadian Pacific Railway. More than any other single factor, it was the Maxwells' early and lifelong relationship with the families and firms composing this powerful financial group that influenced the pattern of their architectural careers.
Like the Board of Trade, the Bank of Montreal was an institution created in the pre-industrial age of merchant capitalism, and the bank's early growth was directly linked to short-term financing of mercantile activities within British North America and elsewhere in the Empire.3 By the mid-nineteenth century, however, the Bank was showing signs of an increasing autonomy and had established itself as one of the leading banks in the New York currency and the Chicago commodity markets. In 1879 it was the first bank with-in the British Empire to float a government bond on the New York, as opposed to the London, bond market. In 1892 it became the London agent of the Dominion of Canada, another first for a "colonial" bank. During the years the Bank of Montreal was consolidating its role as the leading financial institution in Canada, it grew increasingly involved in the financing of industrial activity in the country. Without question, its most im-portant investment was the Canadian Pacific Railway. Symbolically, in 1885, when the last spike of the coun-try’s first transcontinental railway was driven home, it was the bank's principal shareholder, vice-president, and soon-to-bc president, Donald Smith, who wielded the sledgehammer.
This shift in focus from mercantile banking activities to a partnership in industry was the result of the maturation of industrial capitalism.4 Although almost all of the industrial companies in the country remained firmly under the control of their founding families, the ability of these companies to expand rapidly to serve the developing pan-Canadian market depended increasingly on access to the domestic capital market. These changes were reflected in the composition of the Bank's board of directors. Of the thirty men appointed to the Bank's board between the start of construction of the CPR in 1882 and the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, twenty-two were industrial capitalists; 5 no fewer than thirteen of these would commission homes by Maxwell's firm.
The close and privileged relationship that the Maxwells enjoyed with the Bank of Montreal/CPR group was by no means limited to designing their city and country homes. The central element of the group's long-term strategy was the development of a resource-based hinterland in the Canadian West. Their plan involved leapfrogging over southern Ontario, which the main line of the CPR bypassed, in order to develop a "Tomorrow's Country"6 centred in the wheat belt of Saskatchewan that would be dependent on, and to a significant degree controlled by, the transportation, banking and industrial firms headquartered in Montreal. In both the short and medium terms it was a highly successful strategy that invited imitation by the Grand Trunk Pacific and the Canadian Northern, the two transcontinental railways built just before the Great War. This basis for Montreal's dominant position in the Canadian economy would be severely shaken by the man-made ecological disaster of the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s,7 but this occurred long after the Maxwells' completion of the Saskatchewan Legislative Building and of many stations and hotels strategically located along the CPR's line.
The Maxwell practice therefore coincided with the rise of Montreal's leading industrialists and financiers to an almost unassailable position within the Canadian economy. More than forty percent of all the directors of the leading companies in Canada in both 1910 and 1930 lived in Montreal.8 Although undoubtedly proud of their achievements, as the conspicuous consumption manifested by the mansions the Maxwells designed for them shows, they were not in fact members of a meritocracy. Upward social mobility was rare, for many of these men not only ran companies that served a panCanadian market, but also were members of the families who owned these companies. The relatively few business leaders who had not been born to wealth, like J. B. Learmont, owed their success in no small measure to their marriages. Maxwell clients were therefore very different from the "hired guns" who manage modern-day corporate Canada.9
The Maxwell brothers worked in a business environment where family and firm, private club and private school, management and ownership were all interwoven. The result was a clientele comprising private individuals and corporations that were one and the same: with one major exception, the Bell Telephone Company of Canada,10 all of Maxwell's important "corporate" clients were also major "private" clients. The CPR illustrates the connection well. During the 1890s, Edward Maxwell carried out at least twenty private commissions for R. B. Angus, Duncan McIntyre, T G. Shaughnessy, William Van Horne, and James Ross - all prominent directors of the CPR - while at the same time his firm was working on no fewer than twelve different projects for the railway.
The Maxwell firm's work for the Bank of Montreal/CPR group was not limited to the companies associated with the group. There were also the important private houses that the brothers designed for capitalists who shared directly in the growth of the group, such as those for C. R. Hosmer and E W. Thompson, co-owners of Ogilvie Flour; James Crathern and J. B. Learmont of the hardware wholesale firm of Crathern & Caverhill, later known as Caverhill & Learmont; Edward Clouston, general manager of the Bank of Montreal; Hartland MacDougall, a prominent stockbroker active in the underwriting of many of the group's issues; F L. Wanklyn, R. B. Angus's son-in-law and the group's representative on the board of the Montreal Street Railway; Hal Brown, Canadian director of the London & Lancashire general insurance group; Henry and J. H. Birks, owners of the jewellery firm; Charles Smith, owner of the McCready shoe company; Alexander Ramsey, a paint and lead manufacturer; C. C. Ballantyne, owner of the Sherwin Williams Paint Company; and both Noah and Leo Timmins, owners of the Timmins, Ontario, gold mine.
If the private and public worlds of this upper stratum of the business community in Montreal were intertwined, they were also surprisingly narrow. Their unprecedented wealth combined with language and cultural barriers to cut them off from most of the middle stratum of bourgeois families in the city, who were French-speaking. Cocooned in their mansions in the Square Mile when not escaping to their country estates at Senneville and Saint Andrews, these men and women built a social life around the private clubs, schools and philanthropic societies they formed and funded. Quite early on, the Maxwell firm was commissioned to do work for three leading private clubs on the island of Montreal: the Mount Royal, the Saint James's, and the Forest and Stream. The firm also supervised construction of the Montreal Stock Exchange, designed by George Post of New York. None of these buildings was open to the general public; nor were they the exclusive preserve of any particular financial group. Thus they served as advertisements to a broader cross section of the upper reaches of the business community.
In light of this club work and the partnership's later work for Trafalgar and Miss Edgar's private girls' schools and the Royal Victoria, Montreal General and Alexandra hospitals, it is surprising just how little work the firm did for families and companies that were not somehow connected with the Bank of Montreal/CPR group. Two prominent exceptions to this general observation should be noted, however. During the years the firm flourished, a second financial group was created around the Forget/Holt interests. In the two decades after the death of Louis-Joseph Forget in 1911, this group, centred around the Royal Bank of Canada and led by Herbert Holt, would successfully challenge the Bank of Montreal's hegemony within the city's business community.
L.J. Forget represented one of the few cases of social mobility into the highest realms of finance and industry by a member of Montreal's French-speaking majority. He started out as an employee of James Crathern and later was financed in his early stockbroking activities by J. B. Learmont. Whether or not it was through them that Forget came to admire the Maxwells' work cannot be ascertained. It is clear, however, that he greatly favoured the architects, for the Maxwell Archive contains drawings of some fifteen private commissions for Forget, while two of his most important holdings, the Richelieu & Ontario Navigation Company and the Montreal Street Railway Company, were important corporate clients of the firm.
Herbert Holt, who had greatly expanded his family fortune as a CPR contractor along with James Ross, never had any private contracts with the Maxwell firm. However, when his newly acquired bank, the Merchants Bank of Halifax, began to expand into central Canada in the 1890s, Edward Maxwell was its architect of choice in Montreal for close to a decade. In 1901 the Merchants Bank of Halifax became the Royal Bank of Canada, and the Maxwell firm did no major work for them after 1904, when a heightened rivalry between the two Montreal-based financial groups often took on an architectural form. After all, Holt would explain his use of a Roman bath as the model for the Saint James (Saint-Jacques) Street headquarters of the Royal Bank, built in the late 1920s, when it finally surpassed the Bank of Montreal in total assets, on the grounds that the Romans conquered the Greeks. Holt characterized the porticoed head office of the Bank of Montreal as a Greek-inspired temple to wealth.
No survey of the Maxwells' clients would be complete without mentioning the Art Association of Montreal, a commission that resulted from a competition, wherein the brothers won out against the talented McGill architect Percy Nobbs.11 One may doubt whether the playing field was level, for many of the prominent collectors in the city - those who played a leading role in the life of the Art Association of Montreal - lived in homes designed by the Maxwells.12 What better way of publicly affirming their own discerning tastes than by having the centrepiece of the Montreal art world designed by their own architects?
Edward Maxwell died while overseeing the enlargement of the most famous of all the CPR buildings, the Château Frontenac in Quebec City, a fitting monument to his career. Hopefully it is evident from this essay that Edward and William Maxwell were what Gramsci termed "organic intellectuals", in that the significance of their work can best be understood as serving, and ultimately tied to, a particular social group, that being in this case, as most often, the dominant one.13 Thus, the Maxwell brothers gave form and substance to both the public and the private dreams of the families and firms who controlled one of the most influential and powerful financial groups in Canada's history.
1 All quantitative statements concerning the business of the Maxwell firm in this piece are derived from the MA as inventoried in Edwaid & W.S. Maxwell: Guide to the Archive/Guide du fonds (Montreal: Canadian Architecture Collection, McGill University, 1986).
2 John Bland, "Edward Maxwell: Biography", in ibid., p. 5.
3 A somewhat romanticized history of the Bank of Montreal is Merrill Denison, Canada's First Bank (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1966).
4 A general history of this process is Brian Young and John Dickinson, A Short History of Québec: A Socio-economic Perspective (Toronto: Copp Clark, 1988).
5 Robert Sweeny, A History and Guide to the Records of Selected Montreal Businesses Before 1947 (Montreal: HEC, 1978).
6 At the turn of the century this phrase was commonly used to to describe Saskatchewan.
7 John H. Thompson, The Harvest of War (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1978).
8 Gilles Piedalue, "Les groupes financiers au Canada (1900-1930)", Revue ‘histoire de l’Amérique, vol. 30 (June 1976).
9 The expression was used by Alf Powis, the longtime CEO of Noranda, to explain the difference between himself and people who owned their own firm, in Peter C. Newman, The Canadian Establishment (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1976), p. 181.
10 Bell Telephone, although headquartered in Montreal, was not owned by Montrealers. Its principal shareholders were the family of Alexander Graham Bell and their Canadian cousins, the Sises. It should be noted, however, that the president of Bell in the 1890s, when Maxwell started to work for the company, was John Grey, who, like H. V. Meredith, had married one of the Allan heiresses.
11 Rosalind M Pepall, Construction d’un musée beaux-Arts/Building a Beaux-Arts Museum, exhib. Cat. (Montreal: Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 1989).
12 For a discussion of this milieu, see Janet M. Brooke, Discerning Tastes: Montreal Collectors 1880-1920, exhib. cat. (Montreal: Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 1989).
13 See Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Prison Notebooks (New York International Publishers, 1971), p. 10, where the organic intellectual is seen as belonging to “historically formed specialized categories for the exercise of the intellectual function. They are formed in connection with all social groups, but especially in connection with the more important, and they undergo extensive and complex elaboration in connection with the dominant social group.”