Architect's Association of New Brunswick

    

Architects in the Community

 

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"Chasing the noblest of arts and the American dream by John Leroux

New Brunswick's role as one of America's celebrity incubators is widely lauded by the movie buffs of our province that proudly cite the fact that we produced – and yet lost – such Hollywood luminaries as Louis B. Mayer, Donald Sutherland and Walter Pidgeon.

The Reid Brothers' masterpiece – San Diego's Hotel del Coronado – seen from its white sand beach.

The Reid Brothers' masterpiece – San Diego's Hotel del Coronado – seen from its white sand beach.

As distinguished as these examples are, one of the most significant and lasting cases of New Brunswickers culturally enhancing our southern neighbours is virtually unknown, at least at home.

If I told you that at one time the most illustrious architects in California were three brothers from Albert County, you would likely be tempted to shrug it off as a myth. But these brothers from Harvey, the tiny rural village south of Moncton, are without a doubt the province's best-kept architectural secret, best known for their design of a stunning oceanfront luxury hotel far more dignified and remarkable than any hotel on Canadian soil, and so much more.

The three Reid brothers, James (1852-1943), Merritt (1855- 1932), and Watson (1857-1943) were all born and raised in Harvey, in Albert County. The sons of Lucinda and William Reid, who was a house carpenter, the boys were deeply influenced by the work of their father. James and Merritt left home late in their teenage years to train and apprentice with architectural firms in Boston.

Several years later, both brothers left New England seeking wider opportunities in the field, with James working briefly in Toronto and Merritt in Philadelphia and Saint John. By this time, young Watson had enrolled at Mount Allison in Sackville, likely gaining some early knowledge of engineering and architecture through his studies.

In that same year, James found work as a draughtsman in the American Midwest, finally settling in Evansville, Indiana in 1878, where he purchased a partnership in an architectural firm. Merritt joined him in 1880 and the two quickly established themselves as talented, ambitious architects who would leave a lasting mark on the city.

Throughout the next decade they designed dozens of dramatic and attractive structures ranging from houses and commercial buildings, to schools, theatres and churches. Their greatest work of this era is their 1884 Gothic Revival design for Evansville's Willard Library – a triumph of Victorian design. With its multicoloured stone and brick exterior, steeply-pitched slate roof, soaring corner tower and wealth of gothic-arched windows, the Library is now proudly listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.

In 1886, a consortium of businessmen including Elisha Babcock Jr., an Evansville native and supporter of the Reid brothers, bought a large tract of oceanfront land in San Diego with plans to develop the area for the burgeoning tourist trade. They telegraphed James Reid to come to California to discuss the design and construction of a large 400-room hotel in an area called Coronado.

Reid accepted their offer and the rest of the story is the stuff of legend: the future Hotel del Coronado would eventually be known the world over as one of America's most beautiful beach resorts. It would transform the Reid brothers into architectural celebrities throughout the American Pacific coast, and James would chose to remain in California for the rest of his life. With an enormous construction task ahead of him, and Merritt managing the office in Evansville, James summoned his brother Watson from Canada to assist with the design.

Architecturally, the lavish Queen Anne style was newly in vogue and this grand Victorian resort flaunted it at every occasion.

With its whitewashed exterior of scalloped wood shingles, steeply-pitched hip roofs with dormer windows, extensive beachfront verandas, and unmistakable cone-shaped corner wing, the Hotel del Coronado was described by the California Architect and Building News upon its completion in 1888 as "perhaps the largest and most gorgeous in its appointments of any hotel in the world."

The Hotel has been honoured as a United States National Historic Landmark and has hosted 10 U.S. presidents, the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII), and in 1958 it was the backdrop for Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in Billy Wilder's Hollywood classic Some Like it Hot.

The overwhelming acclaim from the Hotel del Coronado allowed the firm to relocate to San Francisco in 1889, with Merritt leaving Evansville to join his brothers the next year. The move was opportune; work flourished in the growing California city, such as their commission to design the 18-storey Claus Spreckels Building downtown.

Built to house the offices of the San Francisco Call newspaper, the 29-storey steel-frame building was topped by a spectacular 4-storey dome in which the Reid Brothers firm set up their offices.

Called the "handsomest tall office building in the world" upon its completion in 1897 by renowned architectural critic B.J.S. Cahill, the terra cotta domed landmark was the highest building in the city and the tallest building west of Chicago at that time. It was the area's first true skyscraper, and the Beauxarts style edifice was selected for the American Architectural Exhibit at the 1900 Paris Exhibition.

Even with the burgeoning success of the family design practice, Watson did not remain in the United States for long. He returned home to Riverside-Albert in 1890, marrying his longtime sweetheart from Harvey and serving as secretary to the honourable A. R. McClelan, a former member of the Canadian Senate and Lieutenant-Governor of New Brunswick from 1896 until 1902.

Luckily for Albert County, Watson was offered several notable local design commissions during his stay. These included McClelan's home – known as Victoria Manor – built in 1893, the Albert County Courthouse of 1904 and the Riverside Consolidated School completed in 1905. Both Victoria Manor and Riverside Consolidated School are designated provincial historic sites, and there's little doubt the courthouse will soon be bestowed the same honour.

Riverside Consolidated School is a vital example of progressive educational development in New Brunswick and this is strongly reflected in the building's architecture. The school is as vibrant as ever and is the oldest consolidated school still in continuous use in the province.

In a relatively short time, Watson Reid had a huge impact on the architectural landscape of a distinct corner of our province.

Unfortunately, this would be short-lived. He decided not to remain in New Brunswick after his wife's death in 1908. Following this tragedy, he moved himself and his family to Vancouver where he practiced architecture until 1936.

Hitting their full creative stride by the end of the 19th century, James and Merritt would go on to complete scores of mansions, theatres, commercial buildings and wonderfully-crafted skyscrapers throughout the Pacific Coast – Portland, Los Angeles, Oakland, San Diego and Spokane, although the bulk of their work was built in now bustling San Francisco.

Their clientele included some of the most prominent businesspeople at the time, and the Reid brothers' progressive architectural spirit is reflected in the scale and eclectic range of their buildings – often pushing the technical limits of the day as much as the aesthetic possibilities.

For example, in 1890, the brothers won the commission to design the soaring headquarters of Portland's Oregonian newspaper.

Known as the Oregonian Building, it held the distinction of being the first steel-frame building west of Chicago. The development of steel engineering allowed for taller buildings, a less bulky treatment of the exterior walls, and the assumption that the structure would be fireproof.

In selecting the architects, the newspaper's management said they desired "architectural talent ... of the highest order" and chose the Reids based on "their standing in the profession."

Built in a modern Romanesque style with rough-faced red Arizona sandstone, buff brick, terra cotta details, and huge arched entrance doorways, the Oregonian Building was topped by a 4.25-metre diameter corner clock tower, gracefully illuminated at night.

The Reid brothers also created renowned San Francisco Bay area attractions such as the Temple of Music, Cliff House and the Fairmont Hotel.

The classically-inspired Temple of Music band shell at Golden Gate Park was donated by their former patron Claus Spreckels and opened in 1900. At the official dedication, Spreckels addressed a crowd of 75,000 and proclaimed: "This noble pleasure ground will doubtless be the chief scene of the open air festivities of the people of California and indeed of the whole Pacific Coast for all time to come."

As one of the most famous musical backdrops in North America, the Temple of Music has hosted such performers as John Philip Sousa, Luciano Pavarotti and the Grateful Dead, among thousands of others. Though seriously damaged and later repaired, it survived the cataclysmic 1906 San Francisco earthquake but was finally closed after the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989.

The Reids' legendary neoclassical Cliff House restaurant and resort overhanging the Pacific Ocean on a spectacular rocky perch opened in 1909 after both of its ornate predecessors were destroyed by fire. Today the recently restored building is preserved as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Finally, one of the brothers' most remarkable survivors is the elegant Fairmont Hotel, which was nearing final completion when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake struck.

Although it withstood a serious fire as a result, the Beaux- Arts style hotel was one of the few structures in the Nob Hill area to survive the quake and continues to serve as a popular hotel to this day.

Upon their deaths, the Reid brothers were remembered as among America's foremost architects, having produced an outstanding body of work that fused function and style. Their impact lives on, not only in the landmark Hotel del Coronado, but throughout the United States and yes, even in distant Albert County, here in New Brunswick.

A century ago, the Reid brothers were arguably the most celebrated living New Brunswickers, even if their star shone brightest among the luminous lights of California. That a few of their wonderful designs live on in their home province is a treat to be sure.

A vintage postcard of the Reid Brothers' 18-storey Claus Spreckels building in downtown San Francisco. The terra cotta domed skyscraper was completed in 1896 and was the tallest building in the city at that time.
 

 

Ycon Building Portland Oregon

   

The Reid Brothers' 1915 Merritt Building in downtown Los Angeles at 8th and Broadway resembles an ancient Roman Ionic temple as much as it does a 20th century commercial building.

   

 

The Evansville, Indiana's 1884 Willard Library. With its multi coloured stone and brick exterior, steeplypitched slate roof, soaring corner tower and wealth of gothic-arched windows, the library is now proudly listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.

Marilyn Monroe in front of the Hotel del Coronado in 1958 during filming of the Hollywood classic Some Like it Hot. The movie, which was shot at the hotel, starred Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, and was recently voted by the American Film Institute as the best comedy film of all time.

 

The Reid Brothers' Temple of Music band shell at Golden Gate Park was opened in 1900.
 

A street scene of Portland's Oregonian newspaper building,
completed in 1892.
 

 

Looking up San Francisco's California Street to Nob Hill after the 1906 earthquake, the Reids' Fairmont Hotel can be seen at the crest of the hill. It was one of the few buildings in the neighbourhood to withstand the disaster.

Taken in 1905 near the end of construction of the Riverside Consolidated School in Riverside-Albert. The school is still in continuous use.

 

Exterior view of the Albert County Courthouse in Hopewell Cape,
constructed in 1904.
 

James and Merritt Reid in their San Francisco office, date unknown.

 

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