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O’DONNELL, JAMES, architect; b. 1774 in County Wexford (Republic of Ireland); d. unmarried 28 Jan. 1830 in Montreal.

James O’Donnell came from a family of substantial landowners. After receiving an elementary education, he left for Dublin, where he bound himself as an apprentice, probably to the famous Irish architect Francis Johnston. No trace of his stay in Dublin has been found except for the plans that he drew for a mausoleum in 1798. He is believed to have subsequently travelled all over Europe, with the exception of France, to study some of the finest architectural structures. In 1812 he took up residence in New York, where he successfully practised as an architect. His major works in that city were the Bloomingdale Asylum (1818–21), the Fulton Street Market (1821–22), and Christ Church (1822–23). O’Donnell took his inspiration for the last building from the neo-Gothic style, which he favoured throughout his career.

With this experience in large-scale projects O’Donnell had become a highly regarded architect in North America. He had already been elected to the American Academy of Fine Arts in New York in 1817. His reputation must have come to the attention of the churchwardens of the parish of Notre-Dame in Montreal, who were planning to build a large new church accommodating 8–9,000 people. In September 1823 the church’s building committee, headed by parish priest Candide-Michel Le Saulnier, recommended sending for O’Donnell. Upon his arrival in Montreal O’Donnell made detailed sketches, and on 17 October his plans were accepted. During the winter of 1823–24 he prepared the definitive plans in his New York studio. The building, 150 feet by 258, was to include two huge towers 196 feet in height. O’Donnell designed the church in neo-Gothic style because he thought it best suited to Canadian materials and workmen, and to the climate. According to contemporary statements the church was to be larger than any other building on the North American continent; it was to have walls of cut stone five feet thick, and a floor supported by 42 pillars three feet in diameter on which would rest trunks of oak trees split in two. In view of the colossal size of the building, provision was made for a system of ducts for hot air, which would be supplied by steam boilers in the basement. In November 1823 contractor John Redpath* was chosen to supply the cut stone, which came from the Tanneries quarry in Griffintown (Montreal). Statute labour by residents of various Montreal Island parishes was used to transport the stone.

In May 1824 O’Donnell moved to Montreal to take charge of the site and provide the working drawings needed for construction to begin. According to the terms of his contract he was to receive annual fees of £375 for four years. He is believed to have provided a hundred or more plans and drawings to guide the contractors. In June 1824 the fabrique of Notre-Dame also called upon Gabriel Lamontagne, a master mason, to act as chief contractor and supervise the execution of the work according to the standards laid down by O’Donnell; this post had been turned down by the young Quebec architect Thomas Baillairgé*, who disliked the neo-Gothic style intended for Notre-Dame.

The foundations were laid and the outside walls erected in the years 1823–26; during the period 1827–29 the interior structure and the finishings were completed. At the height of the summer season about 250 workmen (building craftsmen, day labourers, and carters) were employed on the site under the supervision of five foremen. In general the carpenters, joiners, and masons earned 5s. a day, whereas the day labourers received 2s. 6d. The workmen in the militia gangs received no remuneration. Despite the impressive numbers of workers during peak periods, O’Donnell often complained that he did not always have at his disposal the 45 masons and 45 labourers he had requested. Lack of funds also made it necessary on several occasions to lay off the workmen. In 1827 the fabrique of Notre-Dame had to resign itself to borrowing £22,000 at 6 per cent interest, despite income from donations, collections, and land levies. The walls of the church were finished that year at a cost of £18,000 just for the stone, and work was begun on the roof, which entailed an expenditure of £3,000 for tin plate imported from England.

As the building progressed, relations between employer and workmen steadily deteriorated because O’Donnell’s attitude hardened. In 1827 he had forced the chief contractor, Lamontagne, to make the gangs work longer hours and to see that schedules were respected. Pressed to meet delivery dates, O’Donnell blamed the Canadian workmen for their lack of discipline: “Not a man of them appears the least interested in the building all they care for is to get their pay, and to do as little work for it as they can. They are determined too, to slight the work, and do it their own way whenever my back [is] turned.” Confronted with the resistance of the Montreal carpenters, who were then fighting for a 10-hour day, O’Donnell had asked the contractors, one of whom was Jacob Cox, to prevent the workmen from damaging materials and to forbid any joint action or gathering. This situation of conflict may perhaps be explained by the hypothesis that collective (or even social) organization of work, with its concomitant division of labour, brings with it increased exploitation of the work force.

The church was dedicated none the less on 15 July 1829 in the presence of a great many political and religious dignitaries. It had proved impossible, however, to complete the two front towers designed by O’Donnell, and it was not until 1841 that the fabrique entrusted their construction to architect John Ostell*. In 1832 the cost of building the church totalled £47,446, fifteen per cent more than originally estimated. The plans of the building later served as a model for other parish churches. In addition to this architectural legacy O’Donnell’s work influenced a whole generation of Montreal architects in the 19th century, for example Victor Bourgeau*, Pierre-Louis Morin, John Wells, and John Ostell.

O’Donnell left other buildings worthy of mention. Having refused to take part in the project for a workhouse in Montreal despite the urgings of Lord Dalhousie [Ramsay*], he had contracted in 1824 to provide the plans for a new church on Rue Saint-Jacques commissioned by the American Presbyterian Church. Two years later he agreed to draw the plans for the premises of the British and Canadian School Society of Montreal. This two-storey building with an octagonal dome could accommodate 275 pupils.

For some years James O’Donnell had suffered from oedema, and from July 1829 his condition worsened. In November he dictated his will; at that point he decided to convert from Protestantism to Catholicism, probably as a result of pressure from the Sulpicians. He passed away shortly afterwards, on 28 Jan. 1830. A man of aristocratic manners and unlimited faith in science, he is said by art historians to have grasped and resolved structural problems very well. O’Donnell was fortunate in being able to prove himself at a time when the architect’s function was beginning to emerge, bringing with it a division between conception and execution in the construction industry.

Robert Tremblay

[This biography draws a good deal on Olivier Maurault*’s La paroisse: histoire de léglise Notre-Dame de Montréal (2e éd., Montréal, 1957), 43–104, and especially on the more recent study by F. [K. B. S.] Toker, The church of Notre-Dame in Montreal: an architectural history (Montreal and London, 1970), which contains a thorough examination of James O’Donnell’s career. The key records relating to him are at AP, Notre-Dame de Montréal, Reg. des délibérations du conseil de la fabrique, 1823–29, which contains 21 letters and 173 sketches by O’Donnell.  r.t.]

ANQ-Q, CE1-51, 1er févr. 1830; CN1-134, 14 nov. 1829. Le Canadien, 29 oct. 1823. La Minerve, 9, 16 juill. 1829. Montreal Gazette, 12 June, 4 Sept. 1824; 4 Feb. 1830. Scribbler (Montreal), 13, 24 June 1824. Charles Lipton, Histoire du syndicalisme au Canada et au Québec, 1827–1859, Michel van Schendel, trad. (Montréal, 1976). Luc Noppen, Les églises du Québec (1600–1850) (Québec, 1977). F. [K. B. S.] Toker, “James O’Donnell: an Irish Georgian in America,” Soc. of Architectural Historians, Journal (Philadelphia), 29 (1970): 132–43.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Robert Tremblay, “O’DONNELL, JAMES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 21, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/o_donnell_james_6E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/o_donnell_james_6E.html
Author of Article: Robert Tremblay
Title of Article: O’DONNELL, JAMES
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1987
Year of revision: 1987
Access Date: September 21, 2014