John Wright | The Canadian Encyclopedia


John Wright

Wright began his career as a builder and contractor in Guelph, Ontario. From 1856 to 1859 he acted as Inspector of Works, working with the town of Guelph on the new City Hall designed by William Thomas.

John Wright

 John Wright, architect (b at Killearn, Scot 15 May 1830; d at Victoria 23 Aug 1915). Wright, who immigrated to Canada in 1845, married Agness Scott Armstrong in 1858. He gained early renown in Victoria as an architect and went on to found one of California's largest late-19th-century architectural practices.

Wright began his career as a builder and contractor in Guelph, Ontario. From 1856 to 1859 he acted as Inspector of Works, working with the town of Guelph on the new City Hall designed by William Thomas. On his arrival in Victoria in 1859 Wright correctly gauged that as gold fever fuelled the expanding economy, the city's shacks and shelters would require replacement with more permanent structures. The colonial government was an early client. Fisguard Lighthouse was Wright's first documented commission in 1859. He worked on this project with colonial engineer Herman Otto Tiedemann (1821-91). The same year Wright designed the Wesleyan Methodist Church and a fire company's engine house on Wharf Street. Well-placed civil servants and wealthy businessmen soon began commissioning Wright's architectural skills for their private homes. He designed Cloverdale for Simon Fraser Tolmie in 1860, and the Italianate villastyle Woodlands in James Bay for former Hudson's Bay Company official James Bisset. Work in this style reached its apogee in the nearby Richard Carr house, birthplace of Emily Carr, in 1863.

In 1861 Wright's brother-in-law George Sanders arrived in Victoria and joined the firm. The partnership was immediately successful. The primary domestic commission that year was a large "Swiss villa, "Fairfield, completed for Colonial Surveyor General Joseph Trutch. In commercial work, such as the iron-front Wells Fargo Building (1861) and the masonry Dickson Campbell Building (1862), Wright adopted a Renaissance Revival style featuring arched wall openings detailed with low relief pilasters on the street fronts. The three-storey brick facade of the St. Nicholas Hotel on Government Street with its arched second-floor windows and ornate Italianate cornice established the commercial idiom for Old Town Victoria which remains a dominant feature to this time. In 1862 Wright designed the Civic Seal for the City of Victoria. It is still in use today.

Various strains of Wright's eclectic stylistic palette were evident in major commissions over the next three years. The large frame frontier gothic First Presbyterian Church can be compared with the brick Temple Emanu-el, a substantial and sophisticated essay in the Romanesque revival. Both were built in 1863. In 1865 Wright and Sanders received the commission to make over Judge Hunter Carey's castellated folly atop Rockland into the picturesque, vaguely Chateau-style Government House. One of the firm's last commissions before leaving Victoria in 1866 was Angela Ladies College for the Anglican Diocese. Although only partially built, the published scheme was a sophisticated red-brick collegiate gothic essay.

In 1867 the office of Wright and Sanders moved to San Francisco, although contacts were maintained with Victoria. In 1879 they consulted on an Esquimalt dry dock scheme. The firm also supplied designs to lawyer Henry Crease for additions to his Fort Street house.

The San Francisco practice was successful and lucrative; approximately 100 commissions over the 30 years of business have been identified. This included 14 churches and numerous residences in the most ornate of the High Victorian eclectic styles. The Nob Hill mansion for railroad magnate and financier Mark Hopkins has been described by Harold Kirker as "the last and worst of railroad palaces." Large-scale projects, often involving years of work for the firm, included the State School for the Deaf and Blind, Berkeley, from 1867, the State Insane Asylum, Napa, from 1874 (in its day the largest building of its kind in the United States), and the San Francisco Theological Seminary, from 1892. In 1869 Wright won the competition for the University of California campus at Berkeley but refused the commission in a fee dispute. In 1869 Wright founded the San Francisco chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Sadly, he was to see most of this work destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire. Today his largest architectural legacy is the structures from his early career which have been designated and preserved in Victoria.

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