Manitoba History: The Architectural Legacy of Charles Wheeler
by Giles Bugailiskis
Charles Henry Wheeler was born on 23 April 1838 in Lutterworth, Leicestershire, in the west Midlands of England that includes the cities of Coventry and Birmingham. Lutterworth, with a population of about 2,400, was the Thursday market town and parish serving the surrounding villages and hamlets with the locals providing services as tailors, millers, bakers and the like. Wheeler was born into a humble family. When his parents married, his father Charles was twenty-one years old, a manservant, coachman and groom; his mother Mary Elson was twenty from a neighbouring village. She most likely met her husband helping her family, who were bakers, during market day. Charles H. was the middle child; he had an older half- sister Elizabeth, and a brother John. Charles Jr. attended grammar school in Lutterworth and received additional training from the vicar of the parish church of St. Mary’s. The church had been built in the thirteenth century and is renowned for its former rector John Wycliffe who translated the bible into English in the fourteenth century. Middle class children had private tutors at this time while whatever education working class children received was aimed at giving them moral instruction rather than academic training.
Wheeler’s parents encouraged his attraction to architecture from his early years. We know that the Wheeler’s immediate neighbours on Wood Market Street were both carpenters and so young Charles would have taken an early interest from them. He apprenticed in carpentry, bricklaying, painting and stone masonry, acquiring fundamental skills in construction. By 1858, when Charles H. was 20, he was living in Coventry, working as a carpenter. It is here that he learned pattern making at the Coventry Engine and Art Metal Works. He was living on Ford Street when he met a young woman carpenter named Annie Wakefield living on the same street (born in Fairford, Gloucestershire) and on 9 May 1859 at Holy Trinity Church in Coventry he married her. Their marriage certificate shows that both she and her father were carpenters.
By 1861, the Wheelers had moved into 9 Stanton Street with two infants Alfred and Emily. They lived in Coventry several more years and had another son, Charles. In about 1866 Wheeler took a two-year commission to serve as a clerk of works for the British government in the construction of a gaol in Shanghai, China. Afterwards, he returned to England and took a position in Brighton Sussex where his son George Victor was born in 1869. Very little is known about Charles’ life for the next 13 years. We do know that by 1873 he and his family were living in the Birmingham area and there were two more children, Arthur and Lily. In 1881 he had 45 workmen in his employ and was now living at 148 Conybere Street. For 20 years, his career in Great Britain included assignments as construction foreman, project supervisor (clerk of works) and architect on endeavours such as churches, mansions, bridges, and sea works. Clerk of works were usually young men from humble families who apprenticed in the building trades and worked their way through low level jobs for a larger contractor. They would ensure that work was being done based on the specifications provided by an engineer or architect. Among the influential and prestigious men with whom Wheeler worked during his career in England were George E. Street (1824-1881), Thomas Hawksley (1807- 1893), and John Henry Chamberlain (1831-1883).
After reading a glowing Montreal newspaper account of the opportunities available in the Canadian prairies, Wheeler decided to emigrate. He left England and arrived in Winnipeg with his wife and six children in late February 1882, just near the close of a frenzied land speculation boom. A decision to route the transcontinental Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) through Winnipeg had meant millions of dollars would be spent in the city to supply the huge rail construction project. It also promised a unique opportunity to architects to design any number of commercial, industrial, civic, and residential buildings. William Hespeler, the Dominion Immigration Agent [see article page 28], found them accommodations in a rental house on MacDonald Avenue in Point Douglas, at the same time that thousands were living in tents due to lack of housing in the city. Wheeler first came to the notice of Winnipeggers through his other great interest in music. On 19 April 1882, it was announced that he would perform as a bass soloist during a recital at the Holy Trinity Anglican Church, at Portage and Garry. The event was billed as the “richest musical treat of the season.” A malfunction with the organ delayed the concert until the following week. Wheeler’s subsequent association with the congregation as the designer of their new church established his reputation as a skilled professional architect who brought a new air of respect and vitality to the frontier boomtown that was Winnipeg.
The Holy Trinity Church vestry had called for tenders for a new building in March 1882, shortly after Wheeler’s arrival. Disagreement among the vestry over the location of the church and its final cost delayed selection of a winning architect until the spring of 1883 when prizes were awarded for the best designs. Wheeler’s proposal was not among them. Shortly thereafter, a new tender call was issued for the design of the church at a revised cost of $60,000. The tender was to be awarded within ten days. The chosen proposal was based on a sketch submitted under the names James Chisholm and C. H. Wheeler. Wheeler worked with the Ontario-born Chisholm for a brief time to better acquaint himself with construction methods on the Canadian prairies. The Holy Trinity church drawings were in Wheeler’s hand and he is acknowledged as the architect of the Gothic-styled church. Under his supervision, construction was completed in July 1884. The design, based on early thirteenth-century English churches, established a British form for worship in a city that was becoming a British type of place.
As the grand Anglican Church slowly took shape, a tender was issued for the design of a new City Hall to replace one that was structurally unsound. Plans submitted by Wheeler’ rivals, architects Barber and Barber, were accepted. These two young men from Ontario were the busiest architects in the city with a reputation for skullduggery. Controversy ensued over the manner of the building’s construction. Wheeler, hired as the examining architect, disagreed with the nature of contracts written by the Barbers and with their methods of heating, plumbing, and specifying materials. After the Barbers were formally dismissed from the project, Wheeler and James Chisholm were appointed to superintend the completion of Winnipeg’ memorable City Hall. Wheeler’s firm employed his sons Alfred, George, and William.
Although Wheeler’s reputation as a competent, professional architect was established, economic conditions in Winnipeg in the mid-1880s provided him with very little work. Low wheat prices, poor crops, and considerable out-migration from Manitoba would certainly have limited commissions for Wheeler. He even advertised himself as a professor of music. The family was devastated when their son George Victor, only 17, was killed by a shot through the heart at in the Battle of Fish Creek, on 24 April 1885. He and his brother Alfred served as members of 90th Battalion, Winnipeg Rifles. Charles subsequently made a claim for compensation to the Brigade office stating that he paid his son $12 a week plus food and lodging as a draughtsman in his office, and that he was of great assistance in the office helping to support the large family. The Board recommended that a sum of $500 should be paid as compensation—the actual payment is unknown. By 1887, Winnipeg’s role as the distribution centre for the West began to expand due to increased immigration and lower CPR freight rates. Eastern wholesalers opened local branches to supply goods from Winnipeg throughout Western Canada.
Warehouses and Businesses
Wheeler was commissioned in 1887 to design a brick and stone warehouse for the wholesale grocery firm of George F. Galt and John Galt Company, at the corner of Princess Street and Bannatyne Avenue. Described as being in the “English baronial style,” this was the earliest local example of Wheeler’s use of Romanesque Revival detailing for a commercial building, a manner of exterior ornamentation that he applied consistently to the majority of his subsequent projects. The lower level of the Galt Warehouse was made of rusticated stone supporting pilasters that rose three storeys, giving a distinct bay-by-bay division. The typical Wheeler window plan was clearly articulated; large round-headed windows on the main floor were broken down into pairs on the second floor and triplets on the third. Wheeler did not employ the standard brackets and metal cornice to finish the building; elaborate brick corbelling was used instead. The entranceway was set at the corner of the building providing a tower effect. All the windows were given a stone sill and hood mould for additional articulation. By 1889, Wheeler, assisted by his sons Alfred H. and Charles William, had the busiest architectural firm in the city. Among his commissions during this time was the Tees and Persse Building at 285 Market Square, between King and Princess Streets. James Tees and John B. Persse came to Winnipeg in 1882 and established a grocery business proving goods throughout the developing West. James Tees was a good friend of Wheeler and was also devoted to the cause of good music, being a choirmaster and singer. The building was demolished circa 1960.
The Fould’s Block, a modestly ornamented structure built on Main Street in 1892, exhibited many of Charles Wheeler’s stylistic motifs: round-headed mouldings and window openings, corbelled brick cornice details with miniature polychrome turrets. It was demolished in 1989. In 1893, Wheeler designed a warehouse at Notre Dame Avenue and Princess Street, at the edge of the Exchange District, for the firms of Carscaden and Peck. This clothing manufacturer from Montreal shipped goods to the city were they were divided into smaller lots and then distributed throughout the West. Business was so brisk that a two-storey addition was required in 1907. Currently used as an auction room for antiques and furniture, the building still exhibits many of its original “medieval” details. Described as the handsomest structure in the Elizabethan style, the red brick and Duluth sandstone Davis Block was built in 1894 at the intersection of King Street and Market Avenue, opposite the old City Hall. It contained a number of offices and stores. The date of its demolition is unknown.
The Home for the Incurables, built in 1889 at Portage la Prairie, was the first of a number of public health facilities that Wheeler designed for the provincial government. The building housed patients with ailments that at the time would not be treated in a general hospital. Residents were people with dementia, paralysis and mental illness. Three years later, Wheeler’s Deaf and Dumb Institute, at Portage Avenue and Sherbrook Street, opened under the direction Professor J. C. Watson who had worked in the United States before coming to the city. The original 1890 building was destroyed by fire in 1891 and had also been based on Wheeler’s plans. The building was demolished in 1964.
Built in 1893 adjacent to the former Legislative Building, on Kennedy Street near Broadway, Wheeler’s winning proposal for a provincial Court House featured his signature detailing such as Romanesque Revival rounded arches, a symmetrical façade and buttresses. Shortly after it was built, the design was criticized as being too squat and undignified. An article in a leading Canadian architectural journal praised Tacoma’s Court House as being a better design. Wheeler rebutted by writing that if more funds had been available a much more elaborate structure could have been built. The building ultimately became the School of Art and was torn down circa 1964 to make way for a parking lot.
Wheeler designed two school buildings: Argyle and Dufferin Schools, both built in 1896. Argyle, on Argyle Street near Henry Avenue, featured Romanesque Revival detailing with round-headed paired windows and a heavily articulated entrance tower are details that can be seen in other public buildings. It was demolished in 1956. Dufferin School was built slightly taller than Argyle to accommodate twelve classrooms. A fire damaged it in 1936. Low enrolments resulted in the building being demolished shortly afterwards.
Brandon’s red brick and terra-cotta Merchants Bank building, built in 1890 with a Dutch-gabled façade and arched windows, was used as a bank building for seventeen years until a new bank building, later Brandon’s Public Library, was built. This building was demolished in the early 1970s for a parking lot. In Winnipeg, Wheeler was involved in the construction of several bank buildings. Among them was the Bank of Ottawa, on the east side of Main Street near Lombard Avenue, built in 1894. But he did not design it. Wheeler was critical that, in the 1890s, Canadian banks headquartered in Eastern Canada only hired well-known Toronto designers rather than capable local architects. Designed by Toronto architect Mathew Sheard, Wheeler was reduced to the role of its supervising architect. The building was demolished in 1929. He also served as supervising architect for the Bank of Commerce, built at 389 Main Street, near McDermot Avenue, in 1899 based on a design by the renowned Toronto architectural firm of Darling and Pearson. The terra-cotta façade Indexmanufactured by the Cleveland Stone Company was removed circa 1910 and shipped to Regina where it was installed on a new building. That building was eventually demolished and portions of its façade are now located in a downtown Winnipeg mall.
Other Religious Structures
As Winnipeg’s Jewish population grew they wanted a permanent building for worship so they asked Wheeler to design a synagogue. Built in 1890 at a modest cost of $10,000 at the intersection of King Street and Henry Avenue, the Shaarey Zedek Synagogue opening ceremony included many of Winnipeg’s non-Jewish business elite who also contributed toward its construction. Wheeler also designed church buildings in a variety of communities throughout the North-West. In 1894, he designed an Anglican Cathedral in the English Gothic style, in Regina. St. Paul’s, at 1861 McIntyre Street, is the oldest church building in that city.
Frank Hall Mathewson, a member of Holy Trinity Church’s building committee, manager of the local Bank of Ottawa and later the manager of the Bank of Commerce, hired Wheeler to design a grand home in the newly developing prestigious residential area of the Hudson Bay Reserve. The Mathewson residence, on Assiniboine Avenue between Kennedy and Edmonton Street, was built in 1890.
Ironically, details about Wheeler’s own home, built in 1893 at 62 Donald Street, are sketchy. What we know about it comes from Wheeler’s drawing for his own sanitation system. Prior to 1900, the City of Winnipeg did not require the issuance of building permits for new construction. But, beginning in 1890, plumbing plans had to be approved if a property was to be connected to the City’s water and waste system. Two years after the family moved into their new home his wife Annie died on 13 October 1896. She was about fifty-eight years old. Ten years later Wheeler moved into an apartment building on Graham with his daughter Emily. By 1912 the house was sold to Dr. C. A. Ritchie, the son of local contractor S. B. Ritchie who also built “Dalnavert,” the residence of Hugh John Macdonald. The Wheeler residence was demolished in 1978.
James Burridge, President of the Gurney Stove and Range Company, lived in a home at 99 George Avenue that Wheeler designed for him in 1893 until 1899 when the family moved to the Broadway area. Around 1906, Margaret Scott, a former volunteer stenographer at Holy Trinity Church, joined others who purchased the house and turned it into a residence for nurses who cared for the sick and needy. The Margaret Scott Nursing Mission closed in the 1930s. The home has been heavily altered but still retains a few original details.
Perhaps the most famous of Wheeler’s residential designs is “Dalnavert,” which he designed in 1895 on behalf of Sir Hugh John Macdonald. When this house at 61 Carlton Street in Winnipeg was completed, the Winnipeg Tribune called it a “a perfect house, one in which all the weaknesses of former houses have been avoided and all the good points secured.” Built at a cost of $11,000, in the fashionable Broadway area, the family stayed in the home until Hugh John’s death in 1929 when the house was sold. To prevent its demolition, the Manitoba Historical Society purchased the property in 1970 and rehabilitated the house, opening it as a museum in 1974 to celebrate Winnipeg’s centennary. It is now a National Historic Site interpreting Winnipeg in the late 1890s.
Other Miscellaneous Commissions
The early 1890s saw many young men come West to look for work. In the fall many returned East while others came to Winnipeg. Holy Trinity Church provided food and shelter through an independent institution, the Winnipeg Lodging and Coffee House, which housed about a hundred men on Lombard Avenue. Wheeler designed it in 1898. The men could work in a wood yard to pay for their room and board. For a number of years Margaret Scott lived at the Coffee House working as a nurse. In 1909 the shelter moved and the building, which was located on the site of the present-day Fairmont Hotel, was converted into the Grange Hotel. Its date of demolition is unknown.
Located at the Exhibition Grounds at the corner of Dufferin Avenue and Sinclair Street, Wheeler designed a new wood frame grandstand and stable hailed as the largest in Canada. On 23 July 1900 the Governor-General, H.R.H. the Duke of Connaught, opened the exhibition. That same year, a severe smallpox outbreak at the Winnipeg General Hospital panicked the public who demanded that a separate facility be built to isolate those who had contracted the disease. Located just outside Brookside Cemetery in 1906, the trip to the Quarantine Hospital, or “Pest House” as it became known, was certainly disquieting for patients. By 1921, plans were made to move patients to the City’s Municipal Hospital in the Riverview neighbourhood.
Wheeler’s other works included business blocks in Winnipeg, Regina, and Moosomin, Methodist churches in Moosomin and Morden, and numerous other residences and warehouses. Wheeler’s architectural practice continued until 1906, the majority of work being residences or small additions to buildings he previously designed. He also became second vice-president of the Manitoba Association of Architects upon the group’s formation on 25 May 1906.
In summing up his architectural style, it seems clear that Wheeler, a self-described “ardent Gothicist,” was influenced by British art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900). Wheeler held that the style of exterior decoration must suit the intended use of a building and that the designer must pay attention to proportion, symmetry, and fitness. The individual human touch in architecture must be seen in the arrangement of the external details of the building, the mouldings, the contrast in material and articulation of brick and stone. Ruskin promoted a sense of massiveness where the overall size of the building was more important than the details that may be decorating the surface. This is seen in the simple proportions of all of Wheelers buildings where a large scale, and simplicity of surface decoration was very different from the eclectic Victorian buildings that were going up in Winnipeg.
It is probable that Wheeler’s architectural vision was informed by his musical interests. He once wrote that “the sister arts, music, painting and architecture, are closely allied, so close that should one of the sisters languish for lack of encouragement, the others droop their heads accordingly.” For Wheeler, music and drama were as important in his life as designing buildings. Little is known about his musical education and activities in Great Britain. He probably studied music in Coventry and is said to have written a music column for several London weeklies. Upon his arrival in Winnipeg he immediately became active as a soloist and choirmaster. Wheeler joined the Holy Trinity Church choir, but within months became choirmaster of Zion Methodist Church. He later (March 1885) took over the choir at Knox Presbyterian Church after helping that congregation resolve claims against their contractor. Wheeler started writing critical reviews of Winnipeg’s musical and theatrical events in 1883, submitting articles to various Winnipeg newspapers. Eventually he was hired by the Winnipeg Sun around 1887 and wrote for about three years before the newspaper was bought out by the Manitoba Free Press. When Robert L. Richardson, formerly with the Winnipeg Sun, became publisher and editor of the Winnipeg Tribune, he asked Wheeler to write a Saturday column on music and drama. That feature started in 1890 and continued until Wheeler’s death. For over 25 years Wheeler was acknowledged as the “Grand Old Man” of Winnipeg’s musical world, with his distinguished deep voice and an image as a “long haired Oscar Wilde individual, dividing his time between musical scores and caustic criticisms of overblown musicians.”
On New Year’s Day 1917, Wheeler was on his way to the Walker Theatre for a performance of “The Black Feather” when he slipped and fell on an icy sidewalk. On Sunday, 7 January 1917, he died at the age of seventy-eight. His friend, Archdeacon Fortin of Holy Trinity Church remarked that Wheeler’s outstanding quality as an architect was his “faithful inspection of his buildings” so that “no slovenly or unworthy work ever escaped his vigilance.” Fortin also observed that as a music critic Wheeler exhibited “good judgement and strict honesty” and his “adverse criticisms did not wound because they were always expressed most kindly.” Rival music critic Mrs. C. P. Walker called him “the dean of Canadian critics.” He was buried in St. James Cemetery, under a tombstone that read “He needs no grave. This spirit of undying melody.”
Wheeler’s long-term reputation was secured long before his death. Three sons carried on their father’s traditions: Alfred Harry Wheeler was a choirmaster and architect in St. Paul, Minnesota, Charles Willie Wheeler was a musician and architect in Port Arthur, Ontario, and Arthur Wakefield Wheeler practised as an architect in Edmonton and Winnipeg. Several of his buildings survive in Winnipeg and elsewhere. Wheeler was not an influential designer who produced a style of architecture emulated by others; he was a common Englishman who came to a frontier city and, because of his personality and air of integrity and honesty, was a model to the citizens whose lives he touched. He tried to raise the standards of the arts in a frontier town with belief in the classics and morality. But it is noteworthy that two of his commissions—Holy Trinity Anglican Church and Dalnavert—have been acclaimed by the Government of Canada as national historic sites. No other Winnipeg architect has been so distinguished.
Numerous people have contributed to this article. For help with research and production, I offer thanks to Elaine and Gordon Gilbey, Randy Rostecki, Murray Peterson, Randy Van Vliet, Joanne Holland, Nancy Newman, Tim Worth, Shelley Bruce, Debbie Lyon, Evelyn Bagel, Benson Wincure and the Western Canada Pictorial Index, Robert Hill, Mary Elson, Linda Sherwood, Peter Hunnisett (Coventry Family History Society), and Rod Sasaki (Warehouse Artworks). Academic advice was provided by Malcolm Thurlbey, Sarah McKinnon, Alan Artibise, David Burley, Gerry Friesen, Peter Forster, and Bill Thompson. Help in staging an exhibit on Charles Wheelers’ architectural legacy, which debuted on Manitoba Day 2006 at Dalnavert, was provided by Linda Neyedly and Stephanie Middagh. Finally, I thank Margo Foxford for help throughout this project.
Page revised: 27 February 2016Back to top of page