THE PRACTICING ARCHITECT
Shortly after his arrival in Montreal, Nobbs had sought professional involvement in the practice of architecture, arguing that a practice was essential to demonstrate to students the application of good architectural values. And indeed, only one year after his arrival at McGill University, he succeeded in obtaining from its Governors the commission to design the Students' Union on Sherbrooke Street West-now the McCord Museum (Fig. 3, see p. 87). "The object of the Union was to make the social life of the undergraduate attractive" and it "was to be a Club" in which students of various academic disciplines were to meet, "not as members of their several faculties, but as members of the University."14
Although the building was designed by Nobbs, it was executed in association with the firm Hutchison and Wood, since Nobbs himself had not yet established an architectural office. On the ground floor, the Dining Room occupied the west side of the building, with the kitchen below; while the Grill Room, serving light meals for lunch, was on the east side. On the second level, the most impressive room was the Lounge, and on the third level the large Hall. The Lounge and Hall occupied the entire length of the front. The Union was one of several gifts by Sir William Macdonald, McGill's great benefactor.
On the 5th of April, 1907, the Macdonald Engineering Building was almost entirely destroyed by fire. Designed by Andrew T. Taylor (1850-1937), the building exterior was solidly built of limestone, but its interior was of mill-construction. Both the interior and the roof of the building were entirely wrecked, and the external stone walls were seriously damaged. Located on the top floor of the building, the Architectural Department, with its valuable collection of casts, models, photographs and lantern slides, was practically wiped out. (Fig. 4, see p. 88) By a remarkable chance some sketch designs (believed to be by Pugin) were saved without serious injury.15
On very short notice, Nobbs was commissioned to redesign and rebuild the structure on condition that it be operational for the fall semester that same year, which, in fact, he achieved (Fig. 5, see p. 89). A bas-relief depicting the legendary Phoenix arising youthfully from the ashes, still adorns the south gable of the Macdonald Engineering Building. The School of Architecture was moved from the top floor to the ground floor of the reconstructed building, an area that the Engineering Library would occupy in the 60s and 70s. To replace the destroyed items of the School's Museum Room, Professor Armstrong was sent to England, in 1907, to purchase a new collection of casts, photographs and other equipment.16
In 1910, Nobbs entered into a partnership with one of Capper's first students, George Taylor Hyde (1879-1944). He had graduated from McGill in 1899 with a B.Sc. in Architecture and later studied at M.I.T. This partnership, which lasted until Hyde's death, resulted in the design and execution of many renowned institutional, commercial and domestic buildings. Noteworthy on or near the McGill campus are the University Library Extension (1921), The Osier Memorial Library (1921), the Pathological Institute (1922-24), the Pulp and Paper Research Institute of Canada (1926-28), and the Royal Victoria College Extension (1930).
The University Library Extension stands out as an example of Nobbs urban design civility (Fig. 6, see p.89). Not only did he use the traditional building material of the campus, Montreal grey limestone, but he also complemented the existing Redpath Library structure (designed by Andrew Taylor), in spite of the fact that he disliked eclectic buildings. Susan Wagg's assessment of this building in her monograph on Percy Nobbs is insightful.
"Clasped between the end towers of the old building, Nobbs' elegant addition, with its simplified lines and shape, created a fitting conclusion - both visually and stylistically - to the architectural sequence that unfolded along McTavish Street. Unfortunately, his contribution to this joint architectural effort has been largely obliterated by a later, purely functional addition in reinforced concrete. Modernism's utter rejection of the past left little room for mercy."17
Other notable non-residential buildings in Montreal designed by Nobbs and Hyde are: The New Birks Building, Cathcart Street (1911); Edward VII School on Esplanade Avenue (1912); University Club of Montreal at Mansfield Street (1912); Bancroft School, St. Urbain Street (1914); and the Drummond Medical Building, Drummond Street (1929).
In general, Nobbs preferred the middle road of sober architecture; well-built, functional and integral to its surroundings with an appropriate balance between simplicity and the measured use of meaningful ornamentation displayed in selected places. He had a deep passion for architecture, not only as a designer but also as a builder. "Paper design is not architecture" he stated categorically in an article written for The R.A.I.C. Journal. The A B C of architecture, he contended, "must be apprehended out of doors in contact with operations and ruins. The architect may seek consolation in a drawing; but cannot find full satisfaction in creating anything he cannot walk around, or walk into."18
A skilled craftsman, Nobbs was always ready whenever necessary to demonstrate good craftsmanship whether in masonry, sheet metal work or in other trades to his workers on the building site. He was a perfectionist, and so was his life-long partner Hyde.
14. "The Union," Old McGill, vol. 11, McGill University, 1908, pp. 25-26.
15. "Montreal Notes," The Canadian Architect and Builder, vol. 20, no. 232 (April 1907), p. 59.
16. "Montreal Notes," The Canadian Architect and Builder, vol. 20, no. 236 (August 1907), p. 142.
17. Wagg, op. cit., p. 41.