PURCELL, JAMES, architect; b. c. 1804; fl. 1841–58 in St John’s.
Some time in or before 1841 the strong-willed Roman Catholic bishop of St John’s, Michael Anthony Fleming*, had a serious disagreement with the architect he had hired to superintend the construction of the Cathedral of St John the Baptist and replaced him with James Purcell, a stone-cutter and masonry contractor from Cork (Republic of Ireland). What Purcell did before he assumed that position in 1841 or after his departure in 1858 is not as yet known, but it is clear that he must have had a more amenable personality than his predecessor and may have been more willing to accept – or to work around – Bishop Fleming’s decisions.
It is likely that this amenability and Purcell’s association with Patrick Kough*, superintendent of Newfoundland’s public buildings, were the principal factors in making him the dominant architect in St John’s during the 1840s and 1850s. His importance can be seen in the commissions he received as well as in the fact that, in sectarian St John’s, he was patronized by the two major denominations. In 1842, while working on the cathedral, he designed and built an extension to the Orphan Asylum school run by the Benevolent Irish Society; two years later he added to it a combined portico and observatory. Also in 1842 the Anglicans asked him to produce designs for a small chapel in Quidi Vidi as well as for their proposed cathedral in St John’s. Both were executed in the Gothic Revival style, newly fashionable in Newfoundland. Christ Church, Quidi Vidi, which opened in 1843, was a small, cruciform frame structure with simplified Gothic detail in the form of windows and doors with pointed arches. The design is a considerably modified version of Purcell’s original proposal which called for pinnacled buttresses at every corner and an inappropriate baroque bell-cote over the entrance. The cathedral design was accepted by Bishop Aubrey George Spencer*, but was decisively rejected by his successor, Edward Feild*, who described it in 1844 as a “wretched imitation” of a church by “an honest man [who] knows as much about ecclesiastical architecture as his drawings show.” Feild, in contrast to Spencer, was a high churchman and, in matters of design, an ecclesiologist – a combination which allowed for only the most correct of Gothic design. Feild had his way and the cathedral was designed by George Gilbert Scott in the Old English style of Gothic architecture, with construction beginning in 1847. Purcell appears to have been responsible for the design of the Theological Lecture Room on Military Road which was built in approximately 1842. It was a small, gabled frame structure with detail similar to that found on Christ Church.
In 1846 Purcell designed his major work, the Colonial Building, which housed a bicameral legislature and government offices. This Classical Revival structure with an Ionic portico was officially opened on 28 Jan. 1850. It was originally meant to be situated in the lower town and to include a market-house but, as both Kough and Purcell pointed out, this first site – on a very steep hill – militated against the visual effect of the building. The assembly accepted this argument and the Colonial Building was erected on Military Road adjacent to Government House, while the market-house was combined with a court-house on the original Water Street site. The Colonial Building remained the seat of the House of Assembly until 1959 and now houses the provincial archives.
During the 1850s Purcell’s patron appears to have been the Roman Catholic church. From 1850 to 1853 he worked, once again with Kough, on the construction of the Presentation Convent. His next design commission for the Roman Catholic authorities was St Bonaventure’s College (1857–58), which is built of grey rough-cut granite – stone acquired cheaply when the government reduced the size of the proposed penitentiary. Certain features of the college, notably the treatment of the window surrounds and the coping at the roof gable, are also found in the bishop’s palace constructed in 1854 and the Mercy Convent of 1858, such similarities suggesting that Purcell might also have been responsible for these buildings.
Purcell is not known to have carried out any private or commercial designs in Newfoundland and it may be that he was too much engaged in his public and ecclesiastical commissions to be otherwise involved. He purchased a number of properties in St John’s between 1846 and 1849, presumably on speculation. However, the local economy fell in 1849, and by 1852 all of Purcell’s land was mortgaged. His financial difficulties must have continued to increase because by 1857 he was in serious trouble. By August 1858 he had become insolvent and left Newfoundland.
The impression created by James Purcell’s buildings is that he was a competent architect, although neither imaginative nor adventuresome. His association with Kough – who had a reputation for good and honest work – allowed him to pursue a fairly substantial career in a developing economy. This career was considerably assisted by the building boom that followed the fire of June 1846, but it could not survive his own speculations on that boom or the general economic decline that characterized the succeeding decade.
Nfld., Registry of Deeds, Companies & Securities (St John’s), Deeds, Central District, 11: ff.219, 507; 12: ff.167, 197–98, 200; 13: ff.32, 436, 527; 16: f.46. USPG, C/CAN/Nfl., folders 276–94 (mfm. at PANL). Newfoundlander, 24 Feb. 1842. Patriot (St John’s), 28 July 1841. Public Ledger, 1841–58. Times and General Commercial Gazette (St John’s), 9 Nov. 1842, 28 June 1843. Centenary volume, Benevolent Irish Society of St. John’s, Newfoundland, 1806–1906 (Cork, [Republic of Ire., 1906?]), 68. Wallace Furlong, “The history of St. Bonaventure’s College,” The Adelphian: 125th anniversary, 1857–1982, St. Bonaventure’s School, St. John’s, Newfoundland. ([St John’s, 1982]), 14. Howley, Ecclesiastical hist. of Nfld. [M. P. Murphy], The story of the Colonial Building, seat of parliament from 1850 to 1860, now the home of the Newfoundland and Labrador provincial archives (St John’s, 1972). O’Neill, Story of St. John’s, vol.2.