NOBBS AND MONTREAL'S ARCHITECTURE
When Nobbs arrived in August 1903 at Montreal's harbor, voyagers were typically disembarking into "an unassorted lot of fragments of wharfs and grain elevators." After hiring a cab, a newly arrived passenger was driven up St. Francis Xavier (rue François Zavier) or St. John Street (rue Saint-Jean), both streets with a picturesque profusion of poles and wires. Crossing narrow St. James Street (rue Saint-Jacques), the traveller would get a glimpse of tall and substantial buildings, but after descending into Craig Street (rue Saint-Antoine), a wide thoroughfare, the ambiance suddenly changed: "rows of the neatest old stone houses imaginable" were disfigured "with disproportioned and unattractive, not to say repulsive signs, in apparently some kind of simple and unquestioning faith that they thereby recommend themselves to the general public. A little modesty and tidiness," suggested an anonymous writer with the nom de plume "Concordia Salus," could have made "a wonderful transformation here..... These disfiguring signs are worse than sin, they are blunders, and to architects they are particularly offensive as being a cheap way of obliterating even the finest architecture."26
Since this article was apparently written by an architect and a newcomer to Montreal, and since the nom de plume "Concordia Salus" was borrowed from the City of Montreal's coat of arms, it is tempting to attribute the quote to Nobbs. While there is no proof as to the identity of the writer, the sentiments expressed in this article are nevertheless consistent with Nobbs' critical views. In fact, two years after the publication of this anonymous article, Nobbs chaired the Province of Quebec Association of Architects Committee on City Improvements, which advocated the construction of a bridge over the wharves to enable passengers to reach the city after disembarkation without having to cross the railway lines that border the river.27
Later in life, in an article written for the The RAIC Journal, Nobbs said that on his arriving at the Montreal docks, he hired a cab that passed the new Board of Trade building (by Brown and Miller), which he liked. Later, he recounted, he was shown the Bank of Montreal building then under construction (by McKim, Mead, and White), and was impressed with its Craig Street (rue Saint-Antoine) facade. Windsor Station, the Place Viger Hotel and the Royal Victoria College (all by Bruce Price) he viewed as mementos of the "American Battle of Styles," a skirmish that had spilled over our border. On the McGill campus the Chemistry Building (now the School of Architecture and School of Urban Planning), by Sir Andrew Taylor (in partnership with Hogle and Davis), he assessed as both reasonable and charming, "in contrast with the Ruskinian freakishness of some of its neighbours. " The Royal Victoria Hospital (by Saxon Snell) he opined was a mere copy of Edinburgh's Royal Infirmary.
Of Montreal's churches he liked that of the Grey Nuns on Dorchester Street (now boulevard René-Lévesque) designed by Bourgeau in 1871, and St. Patrick's by Rev. Father Martin S.J., built in 1847. Notre-Dame Cathedral on Place d'Armes (by James O'Donnell), he found dull, but admitted that its adroit plan could accommodate a large congregation. The St. James Cathedral (now Cathédrale Marie-Reine-du-Monde) he viewed as merely "a quarter half-scale model of St. Peter's in Rome," which it is. Christ Church Cathedral (by Frederick Wills) represented the Gothic Revival "in full flower."28 Most of the buildings not favoured by Nobbs were designed either by American or British architects, who did not live in Montreal and had no sense of the Canadian 'genius loci.'
As a former student of Gerard Baldwin Brown and therefore a believer of his teacher's credo that art was ideally a manifestation of the life and culture of its age and place, Nobbs searched for a Canadian architectural identity. He extolled the virtues of vernacular buildings built by the original settlers of Quebec and recalled in one of his articles that when he first came to Montreal, architecture was "subjected to the following more or less competitive influences: a) Parisian academism, b) the rarified classic of the McKim, Mead and White tradition, and c) Gothic revivalism in its many forms, including d) American romanesque. A decade and more was to elapse before I became instrumental in interesting the profession and the general public in the sterling qualities of the old architecture of the Province of Quebec, which paralleled the Colonial period in the USA..."29
Nobbs admitted, however, that during the five decades since his arrival in Canada, he witnessed a great improvement in Montreal's architecture. His "haphazard list of a few good buildings" were: The Macdonald Agriculture College, St. Anne de Bellevue- Hutchison and Wood; The Municipal Library, Sherbrooke Street East-E. Payette; The Crane Building, Beaver Hall Square (now Square Frère-André)-H. Vallance; The New Court House, Notre Dame Street East-E. Cormier; Bell Telephone Building, Beaver Hall Hill-E. Barott; the Château Apartments, Sherbrooke Street West-G. Ross; and The Congregation of Notre Dame (now Dawson College), Sherbrooke Street West-J. Marchand.30
Nobbs, even in his old age (Fig. 12, see p. 92), remained a committed Arts and Crafts architect. He never wavered in his convictions, nor did he ever disown the Arts and Crafts tradition-as many others did before embracing the International Modern Style. In Nobbs' opinion, architects who followed the modern movement to the letter were mere "accommodation engineers" and his sentiment with respect to this new movement is summed up in the last sentence of his book Design: A Treatise on the Discovery of Form (1937): "One must distinguish between modernistic absurdity and modern genius in design-the one denies the past, the other realizes the present as the step between the past and the future."31
26. Montreal Notes, by "Concordia Salus," The Canadian Architect and Builder, vol. 17, no. 202 (October 1904), p. 159.
27. Montreal Notes, The Canadian Architect and Builder, vol. 19. no. 227 (October 1906), pp. 151-152.
28. Nobbs, P.E., "Architecture in the Province of Quebec during the Early Years of the Twentieth Century," The Journal, Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, vol. 33, no. 11 (1956) pp. 418-19.
29. Ibid., p. 418.
30. Ibid., p. 419.