James Purcell

James Purcell, stonemason, contractor, architect (b c1804; flourished 1841-58 at St John's, Nfld). Purcell was brought to Newfoundland in 1841 by the Roman Catholic bishop, Rev M.A. Fleming, to superintend the construction of the cathedral after a dispute with the original superintendent.

Colonial Building
1847-50, St John's, Newfoundland and Labrador; Architect, James Purcell (courtesy Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador/C1-126).

James Purcell, stonemason, contractor, architect (b c1804; flourished 1841-58 at St John's, Nfld). Purcell was brought to Newfoundland in 1841 by the Roman Catholic bishop, Rev M.A. Fleming, to superintend the construction of the cathedral after a dispute with the original superintendent. Principally a stonemason, Purcell obviously had some training in architectural drawing and was able to use this to obtain a number of commissions from the Anglican as well as the Catholic bishop. For the Anglicans, he designed the Theological Institute (demolished) and Christchurch at Quidi Vidi in 1842 in the newly fashionable Gothic Revival style. At the same time he produced a design (likely a reworking of another architect's proposal) for the Anglican cathedral. While the stone for this was shipped to St John's, the 1846 fire did so much damage to it that the new Anglican bishop, Edward Feild, took the opportunity to find a new design and, consequently, Purcell's cathedral was never built.

He did however get an opportunity to design another major building: the colonial building, St John's, which contained the House of Assembly and government offices. Begun in 1847 with Purcell as contractor for his own design, it was completed by 1850. A strong Neoclassical composition, it gets that strength from the fact that it is set on a full basement and a set of steps brings the visitor in under a deep portico of six full-height Ionic columns.

Purcell is not known to have done any commercial or domestic designs but did continue to work as a contractor for the Roman Catholic church, constructing the Presentation Convent, St John's (1850-53). In the late 1840s and early 1850s Purcell engaged in a series of property acquisitions which drove him into bankruptcy so that, by 1858, he had left Newfoundland.