In 1887, Child & Wilson became Calgary’s First Architectural Firm - Lougheed House

Posted by | September 07, 2018 | Uncategorized | No Comments

Designing and constructing in sandstone is no easy feat – it requires expertise not just on the part of the craftspeople (read last our previous post for more on Calgary’s stoneworkers), but on the part of the architect as well. At the time of the 1886 fire, Calgary was equipped with plenty of stoneworkers, but not a single architect. Prior sandstone constructions had been designed either by commissioning architects from abroad, or in the case of smaller projects, by the firm in charge of the construction. The result was a city built in an eclectic combination of Victorian and Colonial styles, designed according to tastes of architects who, for the most part, had never even seen the city. It wasn’t until 1887, a year after the fire, that an opportunistic pair of designers, James Llewellyn Wilson and James Turner Child, established Calgary’s first (extremely lucrative) architectural firm.

Wilson and Child were an unlikely pair. Like most skilled workers at the time, both hailed from, and were educated in, England, but this was where their similarities ended. James Llewellyn Wilson was an architect to the bone: he had practised for several years in London before travelling to Canada for reasons that are unclear, leaving behind a promising career in one of the architectural capitols of the world.[1] James Turner Child, on the other hand, had never strictly been educated or practiced as an architect. He was an engineer by trade, and his specialty was about as far from traditional architecture as it could be: Child had made his name in land reclamation and drainage construction, working for the federal government in Manitoba. However the 1885 rebellion forced him to dissolve this firm and flee west, where he settled in Calgary.[2]

The South Ward (later Haultain) School in 1908.

How the two met is unclear, but it was fortuitous for both that they did. The combination of new construction bylaws instituted after the 1886 fire, and an enormous influx of short-lived foreign capital created an overwhelming demand for skilled designers who could conceive and oversee the execution of complex and difficult sandstone structures. By forming a partnership, Child & Wilson were able to virtually monopolize Calgary’s construction-design industry during the firm’s brief existence. Wilson fulfilled the vast majority of the architectural work. In the space of two years, Wilson’s designs practically overran downtown Calgary, including four massive multi-story structures on Stephen Ave. His weakness for Romanesque Revival architecture (complete with matching cylindrical “towers” on the Alexander Block and Imperial Bank buildings) became Calgary’s first distinctive architectural “look,” establishing a visual precedent which defined construction in the city centre well into the 20th century. Wilson imported various elements of Richardsonian architecture currently en vogue on America’s metropolitan East Coast, including the distinctive rough-hewn, concave sandstone blocks visible on most pre-1920s buildings in Calgary’s core. Meanwhile, Child took care of Calgary’s infrastructural concerns, overseeing the design and construction of Calgary’s first sewer system in 1893.[3]

Given that the firm had always been a “marriage of convenience,” it is unsurprising that Child dissolved the partnership in 1899, when he was offered a more advantageous position as Assistant Chief Engineer for the Northwest Government at Regina. Wilson, on the other hand, remained in Calgary and continued to help define its growth for several decades. Wilson participated in several partnerships, including one with Calgary’s other foremost sandstone architect, William Stanley Bates (whose home originally stood opposite Lougheed House).[4]

The Normal School, circa 1910, still stands today as McDougall Centre.

Few of the designs created by Child & Wilson’s firm remain standing. The Costigan Residence (now Mill St. Brewery) was moved in 1928, but still survives in its new location; Haultain School (originally South Ward School) is now preserved as part of Haultain Park; and Rundle Ruins, the remains of Calgary’s second general hospital, contains a cornerstone bearing the firm’s name.

 

[1] Robert G. Hill, “Wilson, James Llewellyn,” The Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Canada, accessed July 27, 2018, http://dictionaryofarchitectsincanada.org/node/402.

[2] Robert G. Hill, “Child, James Turner,” The Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Canada, accessed July 29, 2018, http://dictionaryofarchitectsincanada.org/node/915.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, “Wilson.”

We have year round exhibits and free events.

Join our newsletter list to be the first to know!

Sign up for our e-newsetter.
SUBSCRIBE
close-link