BROWNE, GEORGE, architect; b. 5 Nov. 1811 in Belfast (Northern Ireland); d. 19 Nov. 1885 in Montreal, Que.
George Browne’s Belfast years are obscure, and research has failed to confirm his personal or architectural parentage. He was part of the great British migration to America following the Napoleonic wars and was probably attracted to Quebec City, as were other architects, because of its prosperity caused by the flourishing lumber trade. John Douglas Borthwick, who presumably knew Browne in his later years, states that he was the son of an architect of the same name and that he came to Quebec in 1830. The following year “G. Browne & Co.” advertised in the Quebec Mercury, claiming they had “gone through their usual term and probation of their profession, besides having superintended the most eminent Buildings.” Whatever his background and connections Browne was active in Quebec during the years 1830–35, judging from advertisements for contracts and surviving contracts themselves.
Connecting buildings with their architects in this period has proved a difficult task. In 1966, 9 Rue Haldimand was identified as one of “two houses with cut stone fronts in Haldimand Street” which were tendered for in the Quebec Mercury of 15 Dec. 1832. It has since been attributed to Henry Musgrave Blaiklock*, but on stylistic grounds this attribution seems highly unlikely. The old customs house, Rue Champlain, documented as by Blaiklock (1830–39), shows similarities in the basic architectural vocabulary but has none of the sculptural sense nor the differentiation of textures which one finds in 9 Haldimand. Another possible candidate for the design of the latter house is Frederick Hacker, who arrived in Quebec in 1832. His 43 Rue d’Auteuil of 1834 uses some of the same architectural forms but shows a very different sense of proportion. Buildings at 73 Rue Sainte-Ursule (built in 1831 and now a convent) and 56 Rue Saint-Louis (1832–34) can quite rightly be associated with 9 Haldimand. All three appear to be by the same hand, showing subtleties in the handling of projections and recessions, as well as textures – qualities which Browne was to develop further in his Kingston period.
In October 1835 Browne announced that he was proceeding the following spring to the United States “to superintend several very extensive buildings,” but nothing is known of these. He seems to have returned to Canada by the time of the rebellions in 1837–38; Borthwick states that he held a commission in the militia and “took an active part”; he also states that Browne moved to Montreal in 1840.
Browne’s introduction to government service, which was crucial since it indirectly provided him with the greatest opportunities of his career, may have come from the provincial secretary, a fellow-Irishman, Dominick Daly*, for whom he had built a Gothic villa (probably the building now known as Benmore at Sillery) in 1834 and two town houses the following year. In February 1841 Lord Sydenham [Thomson*] proclaimed the union of the Canadas and chose Kingston, Canada West, as the new capital. Browne was sent to provide facilities for the government by extending or altering existing structures: adding a wing to Alwington House for the governor general, fitting up the recently completed hospital as a parliament building, and erecting offices for the civil service. None of this work survives. Despite Browne’s employment with the government he was free to accept private commissions. In the Chronicle & Gazette on 17 February he solicited clients, describing himself as an “architect, measurer, and landscape gardener.” During his three years in Kingston he carried out much domestic and commercial work as well as the greatest project of his career, the Kingston Town Hall and Market Building.
Two of his most interesting surviving works, a stone manse for St Andrews Presbyterian Church and a stucco country villa, Rockwood, for John Solomon Cartwright*, were domestic commissions carried out in 1841. The former shows a sensitive use of the native limestone, in both texture and mass. The treatment of the walls in broad panels, which were cut back at the corners and in the central bay, makes one think of Sir John Soane’s buildings in Britain, but the manse is blockier and heavier, as if in response to the coarse nature of the local stone. Rockwood is massive and symmetrical, with Tuscan columns in antis. It is also “picturesque,” the light columns playing against the dark recessed porch and the heavy cornice making strong shadows against the walls, which, as for the manse, were modelled in receding planes. The picturesque element must have been even greater when the original landscaping and outbuildings, which included a lodge and stable, were intact, especially since the front was approached obliquely. Internally, the villa shows a varied and sophisticated use of rectangular and curving shapes and vaultings, and a two-storey octagonal tribune. The sequence of rooms from front to back originally culminated in a breath-taking view of islands and Lake Ontario. There is a feeling of confidence and triumph in Rockwood, appropriate in the boom town atmosphere of Kingston at this period.
The physical and spiritual qualities of the villa are found on a grander scale in the town hall and market building, a commission which Browne won against 11 competitors in 1842. The structure, perhaps the largest of its kind in North America at the time, was to contain two great halls, one a meeting-place to be used as well for grand entertainments and the other a merchants’ exchange; a library and reading-room for the mechanics’ institute; a large market to the rear; and a host of other facilities, including auction rooms and a restaurant. It was a veritable community centre, possibly unique on the continent at that date. It was originally intended to cost £10,000 but the final bill was over £25,000. As designed, the exterior of the building suitably expressed its varied functions yet was coherent and majestic, a fitting symbol of the town’s pride as capital of the united Canadas. Despite two fires and additions, the city hall (recently renovated and partly restored) remains one of the finest pieces of 19th-century architecture in Canada.
Other structures in Kingston which, on stylistic grounds, appear to be by Browne are: the Stuart mausoleum and the Forsythe monument in St Paul’s churchyard; a former country house, known as Ashton (826 Princess Street); two parts of what may have been originally designed as a three-sectioned residential and commercial complex (165–67 Princess); and the Hales cottages (311–17 King Street West). Drawings suggest that Browne designed the Tuscan-pilastered block at William and King, built as a Bank of Montreal and now the Frontenac apartments. Browne also built three round-cornered commercial buildings, the Mowat Building (now destroyed), Wilson’s Buildings, and Commercial Mart. All are Tuscan and “primitive” in style, and the last two have the massive scale seen in the city hall and all Browne’s later Kingston work. This interest in the Tuscan style was taken up by later architects who worked in Kingston, for example William Hay.
In the spring of 1844, when the capital was moved to Montreal, Browne moved too, to superintend new quarters for the legislature and executive. His work included the fitting up of St Ann’s Market as a parliament building (destroyed in the riots of 1849) and additions to the vice-regal mansion, Monklands.
In his later years Browne executed a large number of commissions. He worked for the government at least into the 1850s, hence at times in Quebec City. He remodelled Spencer Wood, the governor general’s residence, and also made alterations to the Parliament Buildings. Neither of these stands, but his Chalmers Church of 1852–53 remains on Rue Sainte-Ursule, a sober affair which suggests that Browne’s heart was not with the Gothic Revival. Some of his most splendid late Montreal buildings have been destroyed: Wellington Terrace (1855–56) which filled the south side of Sainte-Catherine Street between McGill College Avenue and Mansfield Street, and the Prince of Wales Terrace of 1861 which stood on Sherbrooke Street until 1972. As David Hanna has recently pointed out, Browne was not only the architect of these buildings but also their first owner. In other words he was following a pattern set by earlier British speculative builder-architects such as Thomas Cubitt or the Adam brothers. One very grand building by Browne does survive in Montreal, Molsons Bank (now the Bank of Montreal) at Rue Saint-Jacques and Rue Saint-Pierre (built 1864–66), a superb essay in the Second Empire style in contrast to Browne’s earlier neo-classicism. Yet the architect retains his own sense of ponderous mass combined with urban scale, as well as the ability to think of a building “in the round,” rather than as an assemblage of façades.
Any final assessment of Browne must await a detailed study of him and his contemporaries, among whom he will probably rank high. But it seems likely that the buildings of his Kingston period, especially the city hall, will be regarded as his greatest achievements. As a young man, only 29 when he arrived in Kingston, he created buildings that were intensely personal in nature yet responsive to peculiar local circumstances, and at the same time “national” in symbolism and ambition. He was also aided by a splendid medium, the austere, grey Kingston limestone, which responded perfectly to his large ideas.
Browne seems to have given more time to other activities in his later years. In 1854 he was unanimously elected to represent the Central Ward of Montreal, and in 1857 he was appointed a commissioner of the peace. He was apparently also in the real estate business.
When he died in 1885 Browne was buried in the Mount Royal Cemetery beneath a splendid neo-baroque monument which he had designed for his first wife, Anna Maria Jameson (d. 1859) of Dublin. The monument also commemorates four children who died in infancy, his eldest son, Thomas Richardson, and his second wife, Helen Kissock. Also buried in this plot are his youngest son, George, a prominent architect in Winnipeg, and John James, another son, who became a well-known Montreal architect. John James’s son, Fitzjames, continued the family tradition and became an architect and real estate dealer in Montreal.
ANQ-Q, Cartothèque, Plans by Browne for government buildings (mfm. at Qué., Ministère des travaux publics, Planothèque). ASQ, Fonds Viger-Verreau, Sér. O, 0165–0171 (mfm. at PAC). Bibliothèque de la ville de Montréal, Salle Gagnon, Fonds Jacques Viger, “Souvenirs canadiens.” PAC, National Map Coll., Kingston, 1841, Alwington House plans; Kingston, 1842, Town Hall and Market plans. Chronicle & Gazette, 17 Feb. 1841. Quebec Mercury, 2 June 1831, 15 Dec. 1832, 13 Oct. 1835. Borthwick, Hist. and biog. gazetteer, 259; Montreal, 50. The Canadian album: men of Canada; or, success by example . . . , ed. William Cochrane and J. C. Hopkins (5v., Brantford, Ont., 1891–96), III: 222. Inventaire des marchés de construction des Archives civiles de Québec, 1800–1870,G.-G. Bastien et al., compil. (3v., Ottawa, 1975). A. J. H. Richardson, “Guide to the architecturally and historically most significant buildings in the old city of Quebec with a biographical dictionary of architects and builders and illustrations,” Assoc. for Preservation Technology, Bull. (Ottawa), 2 (1970), nos.3–4. Margaret Angus, The old stones of Kingston: its buildings before 1867 ([Toronto], 1966). André Bernier, Le Vieux-Sillery ([Québec], 1977). City of Kingston, Ontario: buildings of historic and architectural significance (2v., [Kingston, Ont.], 1971–73), I: 3–9, 40–43, 70–73, 88–90, 100–4; II: 5–8, 136–38. Peter Fraser, “George Browne: architect” (unpublished paper, Queen’s Univ., Kingston, 1966). D. B. Hanna, “‘The new town of Montreal’: creation of an upper middle class suburb on the slope of Mount Royal in the mid-nineteenth century” (ma thesis, Univ. of Toronto, 1977). Marion MacRae and Anthony Adamson, The ancestral roof: domestic architecture of Upper Canada (Toronto and Vancouver, 1963). Nick and Helma Mika, Kingston City Hall (Belleville, Ont., ). Luc Noppen et al., Québec: trois siècles d’architecture ([Montréal], 1979). J. D. Stewart, “Architecture for a boom town: the primitive and the neo-baroque in George Browne’s Kingston buildings,” To preserve & defend: essays on Kingston in the nineteenth century, ed. Gerald Tulchinsky (Montreal and London, 1976), 37–61. J. D. Stewart and I. E. Wilson, Heritage Kingston (Kingston, 1973). Margaret Angus, “Architects and builders of early Kingston,” Historic Kingston, no.11 (1963): 25–27; “John A. lived here,” Canada: an Hist. Magazine (Toronto), 2 (1974–75), no.2: 8–21. Journal of Canadian Art Hist. (Montreal), 1 (1974), no.2: 43 (letter to the editor by Douglas Richardson). Luc Noppen, “L’utilisation des maquettes et modèles dans l’architecture du Québec,” Journal of Canadian Art Hist., 1 (1974), no.1: 8–9. J. D. and Mary Stewart, “John Solomon Cartwright: Upper Canadian gentleman and Regency ‘man of taste,’” Historic Kingston, no.27 (1979): 61–77.
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Cite This Article
J. Douglas Stewart, “BROWNE, GEORGE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 2, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/browne_george_11E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||J. Douglas Stewart|
|Title of Article:||BROWNE, GEORGE|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1982|
|Year of revision:||1982|
|Access Date:||June 2, 2023|