John Wells

John Wells, architect (b at Norwich, England c1790; d at Montréal 26 April 1864). Trained as a carpenter in the county of Norfolk, Wells became a Freeman in 1820.

John Wells

John Wells, architect (b at Norwich, England c1790; d at Montréal 26 April 1864). Trained as a carpenter in the county of Norfolk, Wells became a Freeman in 1820. His career as an architect might have stemmed from his involvement in the completion of the façade for the Catholic church of St Mary Moorfields in London around that time. In 1823 and again in 1828 he displayed works at the Royal Academy. By 1824-25 he exhibited drawings of residences at the Norwich Society of Artists.

At the age of 40, for reasons unknown, Wells emigrated to Montréal where he worked as a building contractor and then established a successful architectural practice. Given the population boom of the 1830s which introduced thousands of British settlers into a region dominated by French Canadians, Wells catered to the demands of numerous groups. By adapting the latest Gothic, Egyptian, Grecian and Palladian building fashions, his eclectic range reflected the complex ethnic make-up of the city.

Almost immediately upon his arrival he acted as supervising architect for the Montréal prison. In 1832 he teamed up with another English architect, Francis Thompson (1808-1895). Though the partnership was short-lived they won the commission for St Ann's Market and later collaborated on a variety of other projects including St Paul's Presbyterian Church (1834). His involvement in several key organisations such as the Auxiliary Religious Tract Society provided him with considerable public exposure.

His excellent social skills further helped to win over the confidence of influential citizens who were to select him for key ecclesiastical commissions. In spite of his Baptist affiliation, Wells completed Shearith Israel synagogue (1835)-the first Jewish house of worship in British North America-and was responsible for the design of several Roman Catholic churches in rural parishes. He later worked for the Congregationalists, Anglicans and the Free Church of Scotland. In the early 1840s he took on his son, J.H. Wells.

Without question, John Wells's greatest accomplishment was the Bank of Montreal headquarters (1845), erected across from Notre Dame church in Place d'Armes. Inspired by drawings of the Commercial Bank of Scotland in Edinburgh, he produced a building which confirmed Montréal as the metropolis of Canada. In the next few years he worked on a variety of other public buildings.

Both versatile and pragmatic, Wells embraced an assortment of British and American styles to accommodate a diverse clientele. But due to the disappearance of a majority of his works, he has been overlooked as the arbiter of architectural taste in early Victorian Montréal.