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b. 23 June 1878 in Montreal


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WILLS, FRANK, architect and author; baptized 25 Dec. 1822 in Exeter, England, second son of Charles Wills and Elizabeth Bolt; m. first 8 May 1848 Emily Coster (d. 1850), fourth daughter of George Coster and Eleanor Hansard of Fredericton, and they had one daughter; by a second marriage he had a son; d. 23 April 1857 in Montreal, and was survived by his second wife and both children.

It could be argued that Frank Wills was the most important Gothic Revival architect of his generation in North America, even though he is one of the least known figures today. His obscurity must be due partly to the widespread range of his work – from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from the Gulf of Mexico to the St Lawrence River – and partly to his early death. But there is no doubt that he was influential in British North America and in the United States.

The surname Wills is common in Devon, and records from the 15th century onward include various members of the building trades with that surname. Frank Wills’s grandfather and father were plasterers and helliers (slaters or tilers). Though Charles Wills died in 1829 at age 36, he left a comparatively large estate, and his resourceful widow immediately advertised that she intended “carrying on the Business as before.” It would seem that Frank was apprenticed to an architect during his teens.

Frank Wills’s earliest executed design is likely the ambitious and accomplished canopied tomb in Gothic style beside the high altar in St Thomas’s Church, Exeter. Unsigned, undated, and unidentified, it was erected by the Reverend John Medley* to honour his wife, Christiana Bacon, who had died in 1841. Although it has been said that the effigy was carved by her father, the noted sculptor John Bacon the Younger, Wills must have been responsible for the monument as a whole: his elevation of this handsome work survives today in the Public Archives of Canada.

In 1842 Wills exhibited in the architectural section of the Royal Academy of Arts, London, for the first time. He had very likely received training in the office of John Hayward, an Exeter specialist in Gothic architecture who directed Wills’s work on illustrations of local antiquities published by the Exeter Diocesan Architectural Society in 1843 and 1847. Wills seems to have assisted with the architectural work on – possibly he was even responsible for the design of – the Chapel of St Andrew, Exwick, in St Thomas’s Parish, which Hayward had carried out in 1841–42. Although slightly awkward in proportion, the chapel was an outstanding early example of Victorian neogothicism. In part it was the gift of Medley, who was also the secretary and founder of the diocesan architectural society. He was to become the first Anglican bishop of Fredericton in 1845, and Wills’s patron.

Wills appears to have been exclusively a neomedieval ecclesiastical architect to the Anglican communion. He was a younger contemporary of that remarkable generation of English Goths, including George Gilbert Scott and Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, who turned antiquarian study of the Middle Ages into the “science of ecclesiology,” which is to say church architecture and everything that could possibly pertain to it. It was his distinction that he showed himself an early follower of Pugin, and became one of the first transmitters of ecclesiological ideals to British North American and the United States.

The turning-point in Wills’s career came during the winter of 1844–45 with his discovery that St Mary’s in Snettisham, Norfolk, a 14th-century parish church which resembled a cathedral in a number of ways, might serve as a model for the new cathedral Medley would require in Fredericton. Wills had done restoration work on it and had made a record of the church as a whole at Medley’s request. St Mary’s was, as the recently consecrated bishop observed on his arrival in New Brunswick in June 1845, “in its architecture and proportions, betwixt an English Cathedral and a Parish Church and therefore better adapted to this Province, and to the means of the inhabitants.” Evidently both bishop and architect held the ecclesiological view that “instead of new designs . . . real ancient designs . . . should be selected for exact imitation.”

Wills moved to New Brunswick to supervise the construction of Christ Church, the cornerstone of which was laid on 15 Oct. 1845. Only a handful of important Gothic Revival churches had been built in British North America – all in the bland, flat, thin Georgian manner. Christ Church was to be fully Victorian. For two years Wills watched over the construction of what was both the first colonial cathedral to be undertaken on ecclesiological principles and “the first pure cathedral in the Pointed styles that has ever been reared in a British colony.” However, problems with materials, poor workmanship, high costs, adverse criticism, and lack of funds all bedevilled the project. They caused Medley to begin construction at the west end with the nave and aisles, which were built in 1845–49, until revised designs for the east end and more funds were available.

Medley turned the delays to advantage, giving Wills another commission in Fredericton, St Anne’s Chapel. Built rapidly between May 1846 and March 1847, this small church of roughly dressed stone is aisleless, with a porch on one side and an open bell-cote instead of a tower. Executed for the most part in simple Early English style, the chapel and its furnishings formed a demonstration piece of ecclesiology. Drawing simultaneously on one of the Cambridge Camden (later the Ecclesiological) Society’s favourite churches, St Michael’s at Long Stanton, England, and on a design published by Pugin in 1843, St Anne’s illustrated a more adaptive philosophy than the first project for Christ Church. In Wills’s view, “The spirit which should actuate our imitation of ancient work . . . should not be a slavish literal copying of any particular building, but rather the adopting the spirit which actuated its builders: we should endeavour to get that by a comprehensive imitation, which realizes the deep and holy poetry of the structure rather than by a narrow-minded combination of its minute portions.”

With St Anne’s finished, but the western part of the cathedral still incomplete and its eastern end not yet begun, Wills moved to New York City and opened an office late in 1847 or early in 1848. He was involved in organizing the New-York Ecclesiological Society in the spring of 1848 before returning to Fredericton that May to be married. He may have worked for the Anglo-American architect Richard Upjohn in 1848, even though it is clear that Wills held Upjohn in some disdain. The New York society named Wills its architect in January 1849 and he reciprocated by contributing to its journal, the New-York Ecclesiologist, a design for a model church to be used as a guide by congregations unable to obtain or afford architectural advice. He also acted as co-editor of this publication, “the first American journal devoted solely to Architecture.”

Suddenly in 1849, and doubtless owing to the reputation he gained through the New-York Ecclesiological Society, Wills found himself with much work. There was another job in the Maritimes, projects in Upper Canada, commissions in the southern United States, on the east and west coasts, and in western New York. The plans for at least three (in Newark, N.J., Milford, Conn., and San Francisco) of the ten known projects were asymmetrical, a feature that was considered inappropriate to the dignity of a cathedral but otherwise progressive. The San Francisco design was not executed, nor was Wills successful that summer with his competition entry for St James’, the new Anglican cathedral in Toronto, which was erected to the design of Frederic William Cumberland*. Of the commissions that were carried out, three were in stone while five, including St Andrew’s in Newcastle, N.B., were wooden, a perennial architectural problem in many parts of North America but an unfamiliar challenge for an Englishman. Wills clad one church, in Albany, N.Y., in board-and-batten, an innovative, North American technique that complemented the verticality of Gothic design and was held by the American theorist Andrew Jackson Downing to be structurally expressive of the predominantly upright members in frame construction.

Early in 1850 Wills published a handsome and useful book of major importance in North America, Ancient English ecclesiastical architecture and its principles, applied to the wants of the church at the present day. There was nothing just like it on either side of the Atlantic – a blend of architectural history, principles of design, modern examplars (all by Wills), and a glossary. It was a sensible and concise book. All the plates for the illustrations were done by Wills, who was a skilful lithographic artist. The designs ranged from the small wooden chapel at Albany to a large stone church. A couple were markedly irregular in the placing of the tower. (“Only let circumstances, and not a morbid love of the picturesque, govern its position,” wrote Wills.) All were more or less Puginian in architectural concept and consistent with English ecclesiological teaching. The text, however, was freer than Pugin’s writing of controversial polemic and less rigid or inclined to excessive symbolism than Cantabrigian literature. Wills occasionally showed flashes of boldness in theory. His advice on colour anticipated High Victorian taste: “Let us dip our pencils in the hues of heaven, borrow the tints of a cloudless sky or a setting sun, transfer the bright star from its amethystine vault to our churches’ ceilings. . . . and men will . . . confess the real loveliness and grandeur of colour.”

Although the book was successful, in retrospect two things were missing: designs in brick (not then generally accepted for churches, but later used by Wills) and a discussion of the cathedrals that the author had designed. The problem of a church that combined parish functions with those of a cathedral and with the appearance of a cathedral was a topical one, but no doubt Wills had found his experience with Christ Church, Fredericton, and St James’, Toronto, distressing and had decided to avoid controversy. The book was favourably received in the United Kingdom and the United States. In British North America, where architectural publication was non-existent, it enjoys a peculiar distinction: it seems to be the only book with architectural designs illustrating Canadian work that appeared before the last decade of the 19th century.

After the flurry of activity in 1849, Wills’s production slowed, became routine, and showed little development beyond the stage recorded in his book. In any case a pall hung over its publication. His first wife, whose health had been poor almost since their marriage, died in 1850; that year as well he returned to his native Exeter for a visit. These events might explain the near absence of other work by Wills during 1850. From 1851 to 1853 he was in partnership with Henry Dudley, an older colleague from Hayward’s office in Exeter, who joined him in New York. This arrangement enabled Wills to devote more attention to his work outside the city.

Since leaving Fredericton, Wills had kept in contact with Bishop Medley and had had some involvement in the completion of Christ Church. Responding to ecclesiological criticism from England that a cathedral ought to have at least two towers, Wills had offered a striking but costly suggestion in 1846: towers at the end of the transepts. This proposal would have avoided alteration of the work already undertaken, but it was impractical and reflected the young man’s lack of experience. Surely for this reason and also to pacify critics, Medley consulted William Butterfield, then emerging as the paramount ecclesiological architect, about the cathedral’s east end during a fund-raising trip to Britain in 1848. Butterfield’s intervention was limited: he suggested a more economic profile with a short sanctuary, no transepts, and a simplified central tower. In the work completed from 1849 to 1853 a compromise was struck, presumably by the architecturally astute Medley, between the basic forms suggested by Butterfield and the exterior detailing from Wills’s projects.

Despite his dissatisfaction with Christ Church, Wills obviously accepted the compromise design as his own, and it served as the basis of his other cathedral plans. The tactic was unsuccessful in Toronto, where the Church had flatly rejected his use of a “modern antique” from another colony, yet Wills in effect produced an enlarged version of the Fredericton cathedral for the new Christ Church Cathedral in Montreal. Fire had destroyed the old one on 10 Dec. 1856 and Wills’s design was accepted early in the new year. After his sudden death in that city on 23 April 1857, Thomas Seaton Scott* carried out the project.

Contemporary estimates of Wills as an architect vary considerably. Although some praised the excellence of his designs, others found them “rather common-place,” “coldly correct,” or ill suited to locality. In North America the very Englishness of Wills’s ecclesiology was both its strength (in so far as it represented a high art form, one that only an Englishman was likely to appreciate fully) and its weakness (in that it was doctrinaire and insufficiently adapted to new contexts). The Church commented that his design for the cathedral in Toronto would “make a very good . . . country Parish Church situated close to some rugged shore of the mother country . . . but it certainly does not . . . idealize the great, in architecture, in a manner to make a fit model for the metropolitan Church of Western Canada.”

Wills reportedly designed “upwards of fifty churches.” This number would be remarkable for a man who was not 35 when he died and who had been in North America fewer than a dozen years; nevertheless the figure is undoubtedly on the conservative side. A list nearly that long can be drawn up still, a century and a quarter later. What is equally extraordinary is the territory covered by these churches and projects for churches. The plans are not wonderfully varied or adventurous: Wills was sometimes too busy, possibly moving about too much, and certainly working in isolation too long to maintain a developing and innovative edge.

His work was so scattered that it is difficult to assess from the viewpoint of his contemporaries. In the Maritimes his influence seems to have been fairly widely felt and to have endured for several decades. In Upper and Lower Canada he had less impact on leading architects. Wills was certainly more advanced – in theory and in practice – than men like Edward Staveley of Quebec or William Thomas of Toronto; both of these men were more than 20 years older than Wills (although they immigrated to British North America only a year or two earlier than he) and their patterns of thought were already set whether or not they had any awareness of the work of Wills or like-minded writers and practitioners. Those who emigrated later from the United Kingdom, for example, F. W. Cumberland, Thomas Fuller*, and T. S. Scott, had imbibed still more advanced ideas and showed a more flexible and eclectic approach to the problems of “modern gothic” (High Victorian) church design.

Though Frank Wills’s architectural anglicism was more ardent than some could bear, it is impossible to deny his practical and theoretical contributions in four areas: the colonial cathedral as a distinct type, Canadian and American ecclesiology in general, the development of a distinctive North American idiom in wood, and architectural publishing on this continent. He is entitled to recognition for any one of these; for the breadth of his achievements he deserves to be better remembered.

Douglas Richardson

Several articles by Frank Wills and reviews of some of his designs for American churches are in the New-York Ecclesiologist, 1 (1848–49)–5 (1853). Much of the material covered in his articles subsequently appeared in his book, Ancient English ecclesiastical architecture and its principles, applied to the wants of the church at the present day (New York, 1850).

Surviving unpublished material includes a collection of drawings of ecclesiastical antiquities in the Exeter area and lithographed views (by Wills or from his drawings) of churches, mostly of his own design, preserved in the “Exeter Diocesan Architectural Society scrap book” at the Devon and Exeter Institution (Exeter, Eng.). His drawings for Christ Church Cathedral (Fredericton) are in the Anglican Church of Canada, Diocese of Fredericton Arch. Anglican Church of Canada, Diocese of Fredericton Arch., Christ Church Cathedral, John Medley, “Annals of the See of New Brunswick,” 15 Oct. 1845. ANQ-M, CE1-63, 28 avril 1857. St James’ Cathedral Arch. (Anglican) (Toronto), Corr., Wills to T. D. Harris, 18 June 1849; Wills to Henry Grasset, 1 Aug. 1849. Ecclesiologist (Cambridge, Eng., and London; London), November 1841–December 1859. Exeter Diocesan Architectural Soc., Trans. (Exeter, Eng.), 1 (1843); 2 (1847). John Medley, A charge delivered at his primary visitation held in Christ Church Cathedral, Fredericton, August 24, 1847 (Fredericton, 1847); A statement respecting the condition and works of his diocese, by the bishop of Fredericton (London, 1848). Robb and Coster, Letters (Bailey). Church, 13 Sept. 1849. Illustrated London News, 28 April 1849. Montreal Gazette, 25 April 1857. Montreal Transcript, 11 Dec. 1856, 25 April 1857. New-Brunswick Courier, 28 June 1845. New Brunswick Reporter and Fredericton Advertiser, 12 May 1848. Pilot (Montreal), 24 April 1857. D. S. Francis, Architects in practice, New York City, 1840–1900 ([New York, 1980?]), 27, 83. W. Q. Ketchum, The life and work of the Most Reverend John Medley, D.D., first bishop of Fredericton and metropolitan of Canada (Saint John, N.B., 1893). H. E. MacDermot, Christ Church Cathedral; a century in retrospect ([Montreal, 1959]). S. G. Morriss, “The church architecture of Frederic William Cumberland” (2v., ma thesis, Univ. of Toronto, 1976), 26–29. D. S. Richardson, “Christ Church Cathedral, Fredericton, New Brunswick” (ma thesis, Yale Univ., New Haven, Conn., 1966). P. B. Stanton, The gothic revival & American church architecture; an episode in taste, 1840–1856 (Baltimore, Md., 1968). James Patrick, “Ecclesiological gothic in the antebellum south,” Winterthur Portfolio; a Journal of American Material Culture (Chicago), 15 (1980): 117–38. D. S. Richardson, “Hyperborean gothic; or, wilderness ecclesiology and the wood churches of Edward Medley,” Architectura (Munich), 2 (1972): 48–74; letter to the editor, Journal of Canadian Art Hist. (Montreal), 1 (1974), no.2: 43–45.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Douglas Richardson, “WILLS, FRANK,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 23, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/wills_frank_8E.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:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/wills_frank_8E.html
Author of Article:   Douglas Richardson
Title of Article:   WILLS, FRANK
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1985
Year of revision:   1985
Access Date:   June 23, 2024