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William Thomas, Prolific Architect

For the week of Monday December 26, 2011

On December 26, 1860, William Thomas, architect of many of Canada's public buildings, died of complications from diabetes. This great architect, who had immigrated to Canada in his early forties, built many high-quality buildings in the central and eastern regions of the country. He was one of the most influential architects of his period.

Thomas was born in England in or about 1799, and apprenticed as a joiner and carpenter from 1812 to 1819. Shortly after qualifying, he moved to Birmingham, then to Leamington, where he designed churches and public and commercial buildings, and especially residential dwellings. Toward the end of the 1830s, however, the economic situation deteriorated, and Thomas went bankrupt in 1840.

St. Lawrence Hall
© Parks Canada / B. Morin / 1993

In April 1843, he made the decision to immigrate to Canada with his wife, Martha Tutin, and their eight children. The family settled in Toronto, a city then in the throes of frantic development. Thomas soon landed contracts. His churches were the first buildings that sparked public admiration and made his reputation. He designed more than 30 of them, including St Paul’s Presbyterian Church in Hamilton and St Michael’s Cathedral in Toronto. These two were among his most noteworthy achievements.

Thomas also found time for other projects, including many imposing administrative buildings such as courthouses and city halls. He was also responsible for some of Upper Canada’s first public schools, as well as residential and commercial buildings. Though some of his structures have been destroyed, two of his best known works, his monument to Sir Isaac Brock at Queenston Heights, and St Lawrence Hall in Toronto, still survive.

St. Paul's Presbyterian Church
© Parks Canada/ J. Butterill / 1994

In 1857, his business thriving, Thomas recruited a number of apprentices, including two of his sons, William Tutin and Cyrus Pole. The three then formed the architectural firm of William Thomas and Sons. In 1860, William Thomas was elected president of the Association of Architects, Civil Engineers and Provincial Land Surveyors of the Province of Canada. This association, founded the previous year, recognized his talent and his contribution to the world of architecture. Sadly, he died shortly after receiving this honour.

Williams Thomas’ career began in England, but it was in Canada, between 1843 and 1860, that it flourished. Today, his works in a variety of styles stills dot the Canadian landscape from Halifax to Niagara.

With his great contribution to architecture in the years before Confederation, William Thomas was recognized as a person of historical importance in 1974. Many of his works have been designated as sites of historical importance, including St Lawrence Hall in Toronto, Guelph City Hall, the New Québec Custom House, St Paul’s Presbyterian Church / Former St. Andrew’s Church in Hamilton, and the Niagara District Courthouse. To find out more about these buildings, consult the Canadian Register of Historic Places.

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