W I L L I A M S U T H E R L A N D M A X W E L L
B I O G R A P H Y
John Bland, Professor Emeritus of Architecture, McGill University
(CLOSE WINDOW TO RETURN TO "MAXWELL ARCHITECTURAL ARCHIVE")
William Sutherland Maxwell was born in Montreal 14 November 1874, the second son of Edward John Maxwell and Johan MacBean. He attended the Montreal High School and, in 1892, at the age of eighteen, began working in his brother's office in the Sun Life Building on Notre Dame Street in Montreal.
In 1895 he continued his training in Boston, spending three years in the office of Winslow and Wetherel, augmenting his studies in the evenings at the Boston Architectural Club. Walter T. Winslow (1843-1909) began his training in Boston before the Civil War in the office of Nathaniel J. Bradlee. After the war Winslow attended the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and subsequently returned to Bradlee's office, which was busy in the mid-seventies. Shortly before Bradlee's death in 1888 he and an office colleague, George H. Wetherel (1854-1930), were made partners. Wetherel had studied at MIT and had also attended the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. After 1888 the surviving partners continued the practice, which was responsible for many notable commercial buildings in Boston including the Touraine and Parker House hotels and a handsome store for the jewellers Shreve, Crump and Low.
The significant aspects of William Maxwell's experience with Winslow and Wetherel is that the firm specialized in commercial and hotel architecture, and both principals had had training at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. However, during the evenings at the Boston Architectural Club, William met an even more powerful Beaux-Arts influence in the person of Constant Desire Despradelles (1862-1912), Professor of Design at MIT (1892-1912), who conducted two classes a week at the Club. Despradelles had been born in France, had been admitted to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts at twenty, had obtained the diploma in 1886, The Grand Prix de Rome in 1889, and shortly thereafter had migrated to America and settled in Boston, where he practised briefly with Stephen Codman, before devoting his life to teaching.
In 1898 William returned to his brother's office for fifteen months apparently to work on the London & Lancashire Life Assurance Company Building and the competition for additions and alterations to the Merchants Bank in Montreal.
Following this, he spent a year and a half in Paris, where he was accepted as a special student in the Atelier Pascal, one of the ateliers associated with the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Jean Louis Pascal (1837-1920) had entered the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1855, had studied under E. Gilbert and Charles Auguste Questel, had obtained the Grand Prix 1866, had assisted Charles Garnier on the Paris Opera, and in 1870 had joined Henri Labrouste. He had taken over Questel's atelier in 1872, making it especially popular among British and American students. Pascal was awarded the gold medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1914.
An exquisitely rendered composition, presumably made by William Maxwell at this time, is in the CAC.
Its resemblance to the Paris Opera façade reflects the Pascal-Garnier connection. Entitled "Proposed Salle des Fêtes - W.S. Maxwell, Architect, Montreal," its opulent sumptuousness is of a character almost unimagined outside France, indicating that it may have been prepared here as some sort of qualifying submission. William returned to Canada in December 1900. In 1902, following marriage and a brief period of travel, he became a partner in his brother's firm. He added a considerable talent in classical composition and detailing to Edward's romantic vocabulary, which grew to be the dominating characteristic of their joint practice, although there continued to be incidents where the combination of the two distinct talents gave a special flavour to their work.
William Maxwell's schooling in the principles of composition, his ability to express building programmes in a clear Beaux-Arts manner, and to make splendid drawings made the firm redoubtable participants in architectural competitions. Commissions for the Nurses Home of the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal, the Saskatchewan Legislative Buildings, the Art Association of Montreal (renamed the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts), and the Departmental and Courts Buildings Ottawa in 1907 (unexecuted) were gained in competitions due to the skill of the younger partner. William could handle large-scale work in a bold French manner exploiting quoining, rustication, semi-circular, segmental, or elliptical arches, and the orders with accompanying pediments - elements which can be seen in the Legislative Buildings at Regina, the grand façade of the Montreal High School, and in the competition submission for the Manitoba Legislative Building. His small-scale work is more delicate, almost entirely dependent upon proportion and axial balance with only the slightest suggestion of the orders, sometimes with curvilinear treatments of certain window or doorheads and a sparing use of carved ornament. These features can be seen in the narrow façade of the Arthur Hamilton house on Summerhill Avenue in Montreal. William's work in a romantic mood is soft and flowing, never hard or angular. The R.B. Angus house in Senneville, the Church of the Messiah in Montreal, and the drawings for the Departmental and Courts Buildings in Ottawa show this character.
When the Maxwells combined their talents the resulting design was unlike the work of either working individually and has a special quality resulting from the merging of both the romantic and classical idioms. The J.T. Davis house in Montreal is an example of a free grouping of highly individualized rooms in a basically irregular form, yet a single strong axis in the plan gives the interior a near classical order. Moreover, the complex façade show flawless balance without symmetry.
He thereupon applied for membership in the new association of architects and was accepted in 1891. His new position gave him great publicity. Here was a native Montrealer with the desired American expertise, legally qualified to practise, in charge of building the centrepiece of Montreal commerce. Businessmen and industrialists were intrigued by the skill and availability of this pleasant young man, and a variety of commissions were given him even before the Board of Trade Building was completed.
The genius of the ultimate composition of the Château Frontenac in Quebec City is similar, where irregular, often conflicting elements are unified by a massive central tower that presents a fascinating composition from every point of view. In plan, two major axes bring order to a bewildering array of rooms on the hotel's several levels.
However, Bois de la Roche, L.J. Forget's great house in Senneville, seems to show Edward's hand alone; whereas the J.K.L. Ross house on Peel Street in Montreal appears to be the work of William.
William's special touch took time to develop. The office had produced successful classical work that was elaborate and heavy, as can be seen in the Hosmer House of 1901, in the station and hotel in Winnipeg of 1904, and to some extent in two Westmount banks of 1906. It is possible that the competitions, which appeared to be William's forte, permitted him to design independent of established office mannerisms. Competitions always allow an architect to explore and determine a solution to a building programme with a minimum of incidental considerations. Strictly, in a competition, there is not even a client as such but only a statement of basic requirements. William's design for the Saskatchewan Legislative Buildings is a grand organization of principal elements with their fundamental priorities supported by orderly ranks of ancillaries, and where volume, geometry, and ornament express the idea of the building.
His scheme would have been less clear had it been the result of practical considerations of constructional problems and the comfort and convenience of particular individuals or departments which are the daily concerns of most architectural offices.
In 1910 the Maxwells took part in a competition for the design of a new art gallery in Montreal. The building was to replace the original gallery on Phillips Square that had been designed about 1879 by John W. Hopkins (1825-1905) and enlarged in 1892-93 following the designs of Andrew T. Taylor (1850-1937). It appears that on behalf of the Building Committee of the Art Association of Montreal a limited competition for the design of the gallery was conducted by Edmund M. Wheelwright (1854-1912), Guy Lowell's consultant on the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Three Montreal architectural firms, whose qualifications as suitable candidates for the work had been accepted, were invited to compete: Browne and Vallance, Edward and W.S. Maxwell, and Nobbs and Hyde. Wheelwright had no difficulty in making his choice, although his programme was flawed in not having required the building to be designed to be constructed in stages - beyond his merely inserting a clause to indicate that changes would be required to meet the views of the promoters or, as it happened, the extent of their purse.
The new museum was reviewed by Thomas W. Ludlow (1881-1929) in Architectural Record in 1915. Ludlow was serving as Percy Nobbs's replacement as a full-time professor in the McGill School of Architecture (1910-18). His training at Columbia University and at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and his familiarity with those involved in the design and construction of the gallery made him a sympathetic and understanding observer. The story of the competition, the eventual building, and its circumstances is more fully told by Rosalind M. Pepall in Construction d'un Muséedes Beaux-Arts - Montreal 1912 - Building a Beaux-Arts Museum, the catalogue of an exhibition organized by Mrs. Pepall at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 1986. Training in the field of Canadian art history and a previous exhibition and catalogue on the decorative arts related to the architecture of the time made her a reliable reviewer of the work.
All but one of the Maxwell's competition drawings for the gallery exist in the CAC, together with their outline plans of the modifications necessary to provide an amount of building corresponding to the funds available, plus working drawings for what was authorized. Except for its inevitable incompleteness in form and the substitution of brick for marble on its inconspicuous faces, the 1912 building shows a grand conception. In spite of its ragged rear sections it is an architectural performance that could be appreciated anywhere in the world. In fact, it could have been built anywhere from Buenos Aires to Monaco, showing that neither Wheelwright nor the Maxwells were bothered by any desire to use indigenous forms or materials nor to seek units of development that would have integrity and visual completeness in successive stages of development, as architects more affected by the philosophy of William Morris would have been. That the art gallery was entirely the work of William Maxwell can be seen in the disposition of its elements in plan and their expression in its façade, and the refinement of its details - all resulting from his knowledge of classical ideals and the skilled use of marble and bronze.
By 1912 the Maxwells had designed important hotels for the CPR adjoining their existing stations in Winnipeg and Calgary. Although hotel and station were architecturally unified in the Winnipeg project, the station was huge; since the façade of its concourse had a large-scale treatment and impressive forecourt, the hotel was subordinated to its disadvantage. In Calgary the hotel was designed separately and was more prominent, yet equally convenient to the station. While both hotels are handled in the new Beaux-Arts fashion as distinct from the earlier château idiom, the Royal Alexandra in Winnipeg (1904) is heavy and repetitive, whereas the Palliser in Calgary (1912) is elegant. The difference shows a remarkable development in a short time and more than likely corresponds to William Maxwell's enhanced position in the conduct of the firm. The ability of the young man among the conservative designers in his brother's office had been proven by success in the competition for the Saskatchewan Legislative Building. The Palliser Hotel has evident geometry, a good form, and a neat silhouette. Its façade are symmetrically composed: the centres of the arched windows on the ground floor are respected in the positioning of the windows above them.
The main entrance is centered in the façade facing Ninth Avenue. The side entrance is centered on the façade facing the station forecourt. The ground floor is organized correspondingly about two strong axes. The first of these extends from the main entrance through a series of reception spaces back to the elevators; the second, a broad cross axis forming the hotel lounge, extends from a three-part dining room on one side of the building to the station entrance situated between the café and the bar, the latter said to have been the longest in Canada. The kitchen and services behind the elevators at the rear of the building conveniently serve the dining room, café, and the upper floors. Two handsome reception rooms are arranged on a minor cross axis near the entrance, one rectangular, the other oval. The upper floors are formed as a letter E which opens to Ninth Avenue and views toward the mountains. The typical floors are arranged with bedrooms on either side of spinal corridors leading from the central elevators and service rooms and having the possibility of suites at their ends. The first and second floors are planned to accommodate a two-story ballroom in the central pavilion with a foyer connected to a handsome stairway from the ground floor and also neatly reached by the central elevator hall and service areas - without prejudicing the typical bedroom arrangement on the remainder of the floors. The hotel was designed in such a way that it could be increased in height by five additional floors without interfering with its operation or jeopardizing the unity of its façade in either stage. Its roof areas were designed to be enjoyed both at the level of the ballroom, where pergolas insured the privacy of the upper rooms, and at the top of the building where views of the plains, foothills, and snow-covered mountains beyond gave visitors a sense of the geographical facts of western Canada. Harmoniously faced with Manitoba limestone and local brick, the building relates nicely to its neighbors. One feels, however, that it is the geometrical discipline that brings all its multifarious elements into order and gives it the style that is the Pallisers's chief architectural attribute.
William was considered shy and retiring as compared with his outgoing brother, but among men he knew well and respected there was a close friendship based on mutual affection. He was more active than his brother in professional associations. In 1908 he became a Councillor of the Province of Quebec Association of Architects, in 1909 an Associate of the Royal Canadian Academy, in 1913 President of the Arts Club, in 1914 President of the Province of Quebec Association of Architects and an Academician of the Royal Canadian Academy, in 1928 a Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects, in 1935 President of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada and finally in 1938 Vice-president of the Royal Canadian Academy. Among the papers relating to W.S. Maxwell's election as a Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects is the "Candidate`s Separate Statement," where opposite the required list of principal works Maxwell wrote "Firm - Edward & W.S. Maxwell" and then listed in a non-chronological order: the Montreal Art Gallery, the Saskatchewan Parliament Building, the Hotel Palliser in Calgary, the replanning and additions to the Chàteau Frontenac in Quebec; and the J.T. Davis Residence in Montreal. The list could be his opinion of the firm's most creditable work or the work in which he had played an important role or simply an impressive list: a prominent art gallery, a provincial legislative building, two major hotels, and an exceptional private house. All had appeared in the architectural press as noted above.
Neither of the Maxwells left many published accounts of their points of view. Consequently, a paper read by W.S. Maxwell at the Annual Convention of the Ontario Association of Architects in January 1908, entitled "Architectural Education," is exceptional. Published by the Canadian Architect and Builder, it reveals William Maxwell's appreciation of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts system of architectural training and compares the methods evolved in France with those elsewhere.
He noted particularly the camaraderie of the ateliers and the stimulation of living in Paris, although the American variation of the system that he had experienced in Boston appears from his account to have been more memorably instructive. In his brief account he mentions Professor Despradelles, the patron of the Boston Club, twice - first as the person who opened his eyes to the greatness and nobility of architecture and then as the one who taught him how to appreciate architecture by entering a building and trying to feel the intentions of its designer. In his account he made no mention at all of any teachers in Paris. Later William set up an atelier adjoining his own office in Montreal in conjunction with the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design in New York.
Something of the atelier idea appears in his participation in the group of artists, architects, and amateur painters that met regularly on Saturday afternoons in the studio of Maurice Cullen, RCA, to paint from the model. It was this group that William led to form the Arts Club in Montreal--in some ways an ideal atelier. In the firm's work at this time there is a tendency to incorporate decorative elements made by well known artists such as the painters Maurice Cullen, Clarence Gagnon, the sculptor George W. Hill, and the metalsmith Paul Beau. The firm's Strathcona monument in Montreal's Dominion Square, designed with Hill, is an example of sculptor-architect collaboration characteristic of William Maxwell.
The description of the J.T. Davis house on Drummond Street which appeared in Construction in July 1914 is similar in treatment to other accounts of Maxwell work and may have been written by William. The dimensions, details, materials, and colours of the rooms are carefully described. The illustrations were well-selected to show that the rooms were furnished in harmony with the design intentions and in a few cases the names of the collaborating artists were mentioned. This was a residence of exceptional richness and architectural perfection which must make it one of the Maxwells' greatest achievements.
An illustrated article entitled "`The Arts Club, Limited,' Montreal," also possibly written by William Maxwell, is a neat account of the alteration of an old house on Victoria Street to provide accommodation for "a group of professional painters, sculptors, architects, musicians, and amateurs who have ability in these directions." The building is described with particular attention to its decorative finishes and furniture. It gives a picture of an architect deeply concerned with the effect of texture, colour, lighting, in fact the appropriateness and decorative quality of everything that meets the eye or can be touched, and one who was delighted by the individual contributions of the collaborators.
An article on an oratory in a Montreal residence appeared in Construction in September 1920. It describes a tiny chapel in the J.T. Davis house, which was the subject of the most delicate interior decoration, medieval in character without adherence to any particular period. In the execution of the work sufficient funds were available to permit the selection of the best material and craftsmen. The tiny stained glass window was designed and executed by Archibald Davies of the Bromsgrove Guild.
An article entitled "St. Matthews Presbyterian Church in Pointe St. Charles" that appeared in the Journal of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada(JRAIC) in July 1932 was almost certainly written by William Maxwell. It describes with characteristic care the reconstruction of a church that had burned leaving only the masonry walls which determined the roof form; hence the design concerned only the arrangement of the interior, its shape, materials, colour, furniture, and fittings. Sculpted low relief panels are both described and illustrated by photographs of the maquettes, although in this case no mention is made of the identity of the architect's collaborators, who may have been anonymous workers in a firm supplying architectural ornament.
"Souvenirs de Voyage Europe-1935," published in the JRAIC in June 1936, is an account of William's trip to Germany, Belgium, and France in the year of the Exhibition in Brussels. He briefly describes an imaginative scheme of rehabilitation in Bremen that appeared to be well ahead of its time. In Stuttgart he saw Paul Bonatz's great railway station and Zepplin Hotel, and the experimental housing of Behrens, Le Corbusier, Gropius, Oud, Taut and others, which he felt had unity due to the stucco finishes, flat roofs, and abundance of windows. He was impressed by the discretion shown with respect to sign-board advertising in Europe and commented on how much better off our cities would be if our "ballyhoo" was confined to newspapers. He spent ten days in Brussels visiting the Exhibition. He enjoyed particularly the temporary buildings and appreciated the way they were treated as experiments in the use of materials and lighting. He was interested as well in the fact that certain of the exhibition buildings were permanent and would serve a future use, and he also observed a third type, which comprised old buildings nicely restored for the Exhibition. He found Paris as beautiful as ever but lacking gaiety - brooding and unsettled. He was shocked by the Henry Ford building, which he found a rambunctious example of "l'Architecture Publicitaire." He especially enjoyed the Eglise du Saint-Esprit near Vincennes, which he found superbly decorated. He was interested in its concrete with board marks showing and the figures on its parapet sculptured by a process of scraping into a mass of slow-setting concrete before it hardened, which allowed much freedom and vitality, as in a sketch. In London he was impressed by the new buildings for the University of London and for the Royal Institute of British Architects. The article is a nice account by a concerned architect interested in new things, but with an unconcealed appreciation for the craftsmanship and harmonies of older work.
Among William Maxwell's colleagues during his student days in Paris were Charles Mason Remy and Randolph Bolles, who appear to have introduced him to the Baha'i faith. Charles later became President of the International Baha'i Council, and Randolph's sister, May Ellis Bolles, became William's wife. At the time they met she had just returned from a pilgrimage to the prison at Akka, having been a member of the first party of westerners to visit the imprisoned leader of the faith, Abdu'l Baha. She subsequently devoted her life to the cause of his late father, Baha Ullah. Their marriage in London 8 May 1902 drew Maxwell into the mainstream of the Baha'i community in which he, his wife, and daughter were to achieve great prominence. Their house in Montreal became the first Baha'i home in Canada, a centre of religious activity for this country, and for Latin America, where Mrs. Maxwell was later very active and where she died. They received Abdu'l Baha in their home in 1912, and the room he occupied has become a holy place. The Maxwells were frequently in Haifa, which had become the centre of their religion.
In 1937 their daughter married Shoghi Effendi Rabbani (now deceased), the great grandson of Baha Ullah and then the first guardian of the Faith. After Mrs. Maxwell's death in South America in 1939, William visited Haifa, where he remained throughout the Second World War. While there he designed the arcade and superstructure of Bab's Sepulchre, one of the holiest of Baha'i shrines. For this work and for his long devotion to the religion he was recognized as a Hand of the Cause of God. After his death in 1952 the south door of the Sepulchre was named after him, and his house on Pine Avenue in Montreal, long a religious centre, was declared a Shrine - to Baha'is the most holy place in Canada. William Maxwell had returned to Montreal the year before he died. He was buried 29 March 1952 in Mount Royal Cemetery.
1. William H. Atherton, Montreal 1535-1914, 3 vols. (Montreal: S.J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1914), 3: 340-43.
2. Withey, Biographical Dictionary, pp. 646, 666.
3. Ibid.,p. 171.
4. "Montreal: Notes," CAB 12 (April 1899): 73.
5. Adolf K. Placzek, ed. MacMillan Encyclopedia of Architects (New York: The Free Press, 1982), p. 3750.
6. For a reproduction see Pepall, Musée Beaux Arts, p. 89. Maxwell's renderings were published in CAB Archt 14 (June 1901): 124 and supplement.
7. "Residence on Drummond St., Montreal. Edward and W.S. Maxwell, Architects," Construction 7 (July 1914): 267-74.
8. "Alterations and Additions to the Chàteau Frontenac, Quebec, P.Q.," Construction 18 (August 1925): 245-68, 271.
9. Construction 8 (January 1915): 2-11.
10. "The New Art Gallery, Montreal. Edward and W.S. Maxwell, Architects," Construction 7 (January 1916): 6-15.
11. "Hotel Palliser, Calgary, Alberta. Owned and operated by the Canadian Pacific Railway Company," Construction 9 (November 1916): 382-89.
12. CAB 21 (January 1908): 21-25.
13. Construction 6 (June 1913): 223-26.
14. "An Oratory in a Montreal Residence. E. & W.S. Maxwell, Architects," Construction 13 (September 1920): 269-71.
15. JRAIC 9 (July 1932): 170-72.
16. JRAIC 13 (June 1936): 111-16.
17. Canadian Baha'i News Memorial Issue. Montreal, March 1952. n.p.
18. "McGill Graduates Elect New Officers," McGill News (Autumn 1949): 7-8,23