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Great Canadian Architects Since 1800: William Critchlow Harris

The late 19th century was an age that was filled with dreamers. One such person was architect William Critchlow Harris (1854-1913), a PEI-based architect, who combined the physical elements of built form with intangible elements of music. Harris' work lives on in historic places in Charlottetown and small towns in Nova Scotia.

William Critchlow Harris was born in Bootle, England and arrived in Prince Edward Island in 1856. Harris encountered a landscape that inspired his imagination. In the early 1870s Harris studied under the architect David Stirling in Halifax before returning to PEI. Paintings and photographs of Harris show a man with a striking resemblance to Vincent Van Gogh. By many accounts, Harris was introspective and loved to travel alone to remote wilderness areas. He was not interested in business, he had a charming though rumpled sense of fashion, and he was happiest when in the company of children. He fell into a prolonged bachelorhood living a mostly nocturnal life in rented rooms and houses. While he did not make much money, Harris built numerous churches and several important public buildings. Aside from his talents as an architectural draftsman, he played the piano, violin, and the flute, and he wrote poetry and collected books.

BeaconsfieldAs an architect, Harris was influenced by the principles of Classicism and Romanticism. His own style was distinctive, and blended design from a variety of sources. His earliest work is in the Second Empire architectural style, and his first work - from 1877 - is a house called Beaconsfield (left). Notice some of the fine Second Empire elements, such as the mansard roof, the placement and style of the windows, the round headed dormer windows and the large wraparound veranda. There are Italianate influences, such as the belvedere on the top of the roof with gingerbread trim as well as the tall chimneys. Harris allowed for a harmonious fit between the house and the surrounding landscape: although it is a large, 25-room mansion, Beaconsfield sits comfortably on a large property that is now surrounded by huge trees and a stunning Victorian garden at the entrance to Charlottetown's Victoria Park.

Other houses designed by Harris in the late 1870s display his varied talents. There is Watermere/Windemere (1877, Gothic Revival), Westbourne (1877, Second Empire), and the H.H. Houle House (1879, Second Empire).  In 1884, after Charlottetown suffered a devastating fire, Harris had the opportunity to design some of the new commercial buildings in the core, including the Italianate Cameron Block (west and east sections) and the Newson Block. From this time forward, Harris received many commissions to design buildings in a variety of styles. The 1886 Maclennan House demonstrates the Renaissance Revival style, while Elmwood Heritage Inn , (1889), Hawthorn Villa (1890) andWilliam A. Weeks House (1892) were deisgned in the Queen Anne Revival style. Harris was also the supervising architect for the 1887 Romanesque Revival Montague Bridge Post Office and Customs House.

All_Souls_ChapelHarris' primary passion was for designing churches. During the 1880s, he experimented with the English Gothic tradition. His most enduring works from this period are the imposing St. James Anglican Church (1885-1887) in Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia, and All Soul's Chapel (1888 - right), a little gem in Charlottetown. Both of these places of worship were designed with particular attention to sound quality and resonance.

Harris dreamed that church buildings could operate like the interiors of musical instruments. In other words, he felt church design should combine materials and space in a way that would provide spectacular acoustical effects with a minimum amount of echo. Harris believed that the use of different kinds of hardwood would help intensify the sound produced in the chancel in the same way as the front and back of a violin help to intensify the sound of the instrument's reverberating strings. At this stage in his career, Harris also decided to use the elements of the French Gothic style including open interior spaces and curved or angled surfaces. He felt that these architectural elements were better suited to achieving his overall goal to combine architecture and music.

St-Paul_Anglican_ChurchHarris was able to put what he imagined into practice in the design of the 1896 St. Paul's Anglican Church (left). St. Paul's may be Harris' masterpiece. The building has imaginative, soaring and sonorous qualities.Buttresses extend along the outside of the structure, which features red Island sandstone and a Nova Scotia Freestone trim. The church has a cross gable slate roof with rough stone trim within the gables, and the tall tower and spire on the north-east section of the building features finials at the base and includes a cross atop the spire. Inside visitors may note the octagonal sanctuary and the conical, wooden groined roof covering the chancel and the nave. Finishing touches include a sounding post of juniper wood under the chancel floor, and panels of spruce and maple in the choir. All these features were intended to enhance the acoustics, providing the maximum amount of sound clarity, and making the church sound like a concert hall. The end result was such a success with the clergy that it led to more work for Harris: twenty-two more churches were built according to similar plans over the next 16 years throughout PEI and Nova Scotia.

Old_PlaceOne the finest Harris projects from this later period is a redesign of a house in Canning, Nova Scotia. The Old Place (right) was redesigned for medical doctor and politician Sir Frederick Borden. Though built in 1864 in the Gothic Revival style, Harris transformed it into a beautiful Queen Anne Revival home in 1902. Exterior design elements came to include a round, squat tower with a steeply pitched, conical roof, and patterned wood shingle cladding.

At his death in 1913, Harris was still owed money for many of his projects and had few possessions. Except for a grand piano and a leather bound edition of a 1911 Encyclopedia, Harris owned some property in Charlottetown and had a little in savings. His brother later reflected that Harris had "lived in such a dream world, full of imaginings." And yet, thanks to William Critchlow Harris, these historic places help to define the contemporary landscapes of Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia while taking us back to the world of Victorian imagination.

Additional Resources:


Tuck, Robert. Gothic Dreams: The Life and Times of a Canadian Architect William Critchlow Harris, 1854-1913. Toronto: Dundern Press, 1978.

Tuck, Robert C. Prince Edward Island Architects : William Critchlow Harris, 1854-1913. Charlottetown: Institute of Island Architectural Studies and Conservation, 2000.


Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Canada 1850-1950:

William Harris, Atlantic Canada Architect:

Historic Properties Online: William Critchlow Harris, RCA:

Dictionary of Canadian Biography: 

Antagonish and its Architects and Builders:


Confederation Centre of the Arts Art Gallery, Robert Harris Collection and Archives:

PEI Museum and Heritage Foundation: 

Public Archives and Records of Prince Edward Island:

  1. Digitized Architectural Plans: 
    (193 Fitzroy Street, proposed MacLennan-Hunt House)
  2. St. Peter's Cathedral Fonds: 
  3. Elmwood Photograph Fonds: 
  4. James F. Toombs Architectural Fonds:
  5. Robert Harris Correspondence: 

Other Information:

Institute for Architectural Studies and Conservation: Harris Legacy Tours:

The Cathedral Church of All Saints: 

A Short Guide to All Soul's Chapel: 

Virtual Tour of Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island: