Ostell, John

OSTELL, John (1813-1892) was one of the most prominent and influential architects in Lower Canada from 1835 until the late 1850's when he turned his attention to entrepreneurial pursuits. Born in London, England he was the son of Isaac Ostell, a saddler by trade. He emigrated to Montreal in 1834 where he quickly became a successful architect and surveyor while, at the same time, playing a prominent part in municipal politics. Little is known of his early education but he possessed sufficient training to provide the necessary plans and specifications for the many major commissions which he undertook soon after his arrival in Montreal. He studied under a Montreal surveyor Andre Papineau and received his certificate to practice surveying on 17 July 1834. Many of his field notebooks which he kept during the period from 1836 to 1891 are now held at the Quebec National Archives at Montreal and provide insight into his working methodologies and, on occasion, include random architectural sketches.

Ostell worked easily in both the French and English milieu, receiving commissions from the Government of Lower Canada, from the Royal Institution for the Advancement of Learning, and from the Board of Works, as well as ecclesiastical commissions from such illustrious patrons as Rev. Ignace Bourget, the Bishop of Montreal, and from the Gentlemen of St. Sulpice. Private commissions included schemes for renovations, additions, and for new buildings for prominent Montrealers. His surviving works include imposing designs which demonstrate his ability to work in a variety of styles, and his institutional buildings like the Custom House (1836), the McGill University Arts Building (1839-43), and the Court House (1850-56) which show his mastery of the Neo-Classical style. He possessed an awareness of the refinements of Greek Revival design as outlined in the report of his Court House design which he presented to the Montreal Board of Works in May of 1852. However, it is his ecclesiastical commissions which reveal a knowledge of Baroque forms as demonstrated in the facade of the Church of the Visitation, Sault-au-Recollet (1850), and in the design for the Church of Notre-Dame-de-Toutes-Graces (1851). His manipulation of the Neo-Gothic in the Church of St. Jacques (1857) is equally convincing, and suggests that the choice of style depended largely upon the taste of the client.

Ostell's first major commission in Montreal was undertaken in 1836 when his design for the Custom House, Place Royale was awarded first prize in a competition with two other architects. His design for the elevation was '....extremely chaste, and does great credit to the designer. The principal facade fronting the river is a composition of the Grecian, Doric and Ionic orders' (Gazette [Montreal], 12 Nov. 1835, 2). His next important institutional commission was for the newly established McGill College, Sherbrooke Street. In competition with John Wells, George Browne, and H.B. Parry, his design was awarded first prize in May, 1839, with the proviso that he modify his original concept. The revised design proposed a building with a Doric portico, a central college hall with offices and apartments, and an east and west wing to accommodate staff and student living quarters. Ostell attended the ceremony of the laying of the cornerstone in 1839, but it was not until September 1843 that the centre block and east wing were opened to receive students and it took nearly twenty years before his conception of a unified composition of the centre block and wings was finally completed in 1862.

Architecture was not Ostell's only interest, and he was active in the municipal government in Montreal, involving himself in business pursuits and playing a role in the development of the city's social institutions. He was appointed Roads Inspector in 1841, and served as City Surveyor from 1842 until 1847. In his capacity as Provincial Surveyor in 1848 he prepared plans for many federal works, and made trips to London, England and to the United States in the 1840's and 1850's. Upon receiving the commission to add a new wing to the Montreal Goal (1851) he travelled to many penitentiary facilities in Canada and the eastern American states to learn first-hand about new concepts in prison design. Ostell was keenly aware of the important social issues raised by such a project, and he noted on his return that he had "....come to the conclusion that to isolate and classify the male juvenile offenders would be one of the greatest benefits attainable" (NAC, RG11, Vol. 16, Item 14689). In April 1850 Ostell won the competition for the new Court House in Montreal, and it is presumed that it was he who used the pseudonym "Stadacona" to submit his elaborate design "...in the classic Greek style", which was described in detail in the Montreal Gazette on 5 April 1850, p. 2, col. 5.

By the early 1850's he had become increasingly involved with other business interests in Montreal. He was appointed director of the New City Gas Company in 1850, and served as its president from 1860 until 1865. He began a lumber business in 1852 and by 1855 he employed seventy-five men to supply 'doors, windows, and all kinds of joiners furnishings' (Montreal in 1856 - A Sketch Prepared for the Celebration of the Opening of the G.T.R., 41). Along with his business operations Ostell designed the Court House, laid out plans for Mount Royal Cemetery, and undertook a number of ecclesiastical commissions including the Grand Seminary, Sherbrooke Street, for the Sulpicians. During the 1860's and 1870's he devoted himself almost entirely to his lumber business, and his architectural work diminished sharply. By 1886 his factory was described as '...one of the large and important manufacturing and business industries in Montreal' (M. Bixby, Industries of Canada: City of Montreal, 1886).

He married Eleonore Gauvin on 8 January 1837 and raised a family of eight children. Her sister Marie-Sophie Gauvin married Julien Perrault, a prominent lumber merchant, and their son Henri-Maurice Perrault studied architecture with his uncle John Ostell before going into partnership with him in 1850. Ostell died in Montreal on 6 April 1892 at seventy-nine years of age; his obituary noted that he had combined '.....the profession of civil engineer and architect' and that he was '....connected with many of the railway and other works in the early history of the country' (Gazette [Montreal], 7 April 1892, 3). He was buried in Mount Royal Cemetery, a large tract of land which he had laid out and surveyed in the early 1850's. A small portrait of Ostell can be found in O. Maurault, Saint-Jacques de Montreal, 1923, 10. (For references to drawings, photographs and other MS material see Ellen James, John Ostell - Architect, Surveyor, a catalogue published by the McCord Museum, Montreal, 1985, with a full list of works 94-112; biography in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, xii, 1990, 808-11; obituary in La Patrie [Montreal], 7 April 1892, 4; O. Maurault, Saint- Jacques de Montreal, 1923, 39-41; J.-C. Marsan, Montreal in Evolution, 1981, 152).

(works in Montreal)


NOTRE DAME STREET, stone house for an unidentified client, 1835 (Gazette [Montreal], 27 Jan. 1835, 3, t.c.)


ST. GABRIEL STREET, three storey stone house for an unidentified client, 1835 (ANQM, Notary I. J. Gibb, Contract 6, 11 Nov. 1835)
NOTRE DAME STREET WEST, conversion of a block for new stores for Austin Cuvillier, 1836 (Montreal Gazette, 26 Jan. 1836, 3; ANQM, Notary H. Griffin, Contract 13598, 22 Jan. 1836; E. James, 21, illus.)
ST. DENIS STREET, at St. Paul Street, residence for James Millar, 1836 (ANQM, Notary H. Griffin, Contract 13688, 26 Feb. 1836)
CUSTOM HOUSE, Place Royale, 1835-36 (Gazette [Montreal], 12 Nov. 1835, 3, descrip.; N. Bosworth, Hochelaga Depicta, 1839, 166-67, descrip. & illus.; J.-C. Marsan, Montreal in Evolution, 1981, 152-53; Montreal, Les Edifices Publics, 1981, 140-41, illus.; E. James, 8, 23-26, 30-33, illus.)
SHERBROOKE STREET EAST, at Hotel-de-Ville Avenue, residence for Alexander Buchanan, 1837 (Montreal, Les Residences, 1987, 108-110, illus.)
McGILL UNIVERSITY ARTS BUILDING, Sherbrooke Street West, 1839-43; additions 1860-62 (Gazette [Montreal], 3 Aug. 1839, 3, t.c.; McGill University Archives, Acc. 1766/3/3, Specifications, Estimates and Description by John Ostell, May 1839; Montreal, Les Edifices Scolaires, 1980, 140-43, illus.; E. James, 34-49, illus.)
ST. ANTOINE HALL, St. Antoine Street near Mountain Street; additions to the residence for John Torrance, 1839; demol. c. 1950 (ANQM, Notary H. Griffin, Contract 16495, 8 March 1839; E. James, 22, illus.)
ALEXANDER STREET, near de Bleury Street, two houses for James Ferrier and John Smith, 1840 (British Colonist [Toronto], 7 Oct. 1840, 3, descrip.)
L'ASILE DE LA PROVIDENCE, St. Hubert Street at Ste. Catherine Street, 1842; demol. (Les Melanges Religieuses, 1842, iii, 307; E. James, 50, illus.)
NOTRE-DAME-DE-MONTREAL, Place d'Armes, addition of towers, 1842 (F. Toker, The Church of Notre-Dame in Montreal, 1970, 49, 60; Montreal, Les Eglises, 1981, 94-105, illus.)
HIGH SCHOOL OF MONTREAL, Belmont Street, 1845; demol. 1947 (Gazette [Montreal], 14 July 1845, 2, descrip.; E. James, 52, illus.)
PROTESTANT ORPHAN ASYLUM, Ste. Catherine Street near Peel Street, 1848; demol. (Montreal Transcript, 22 Feb. 1848, 2, t.c.; R. MacKay, Montreal Directory, 1854, 227; E. James, 51, illus.)
SEMINARY OF ST. SULPICE, Place d'Armes, East Wing, 1848 (Archives of the Seminary of St. Sulpice, Montreal, Cahier de Gestion, 15 Sept. 1848; Montreal, Les Couvents, 1984, 364-69, illus.)
EPISCOPAL PALACE, St. Denis Street near Ste. Catherine Street, 1849; burned 1852 (O. Maurault, Saint-Jacques de Montreal, 1923, 39-44, illus.; E. James, 53, illus.)
(with H.M. Perrault) COURT HOUSE, Notre-Dame Street East, won in a competition in 1850, built 1850-56; altered with addition of a third floor and cupola, 1890-94 (Montreal Transcript, 22 Aug. 1850, 2; 5 Sept. 1850, 2, t.c.; 5 oct. 1854, 2, descrip.; Gazette [Montreal], 28 Aug. 1850, 2, descrip.; PAC, RG11, xviii, Item 16890, 3, descrip.; Gazette [Montreal], 23 March 1901, 11, descrip. in historical article; Montreal, Les Edifices Publics, 1981, 296-99, illus.; E. James, 72-74, 77-83, illus.). A detailed architectural description of the winning design, ".....in the classic Greek style", signed "Stadacona" and presumably prepared by John Ostell, was published in The Gazette [Montreal], 5 April 1850, 2, col. 5.
CHURCH OF NOTRE-DAME-DE-TOUTES-GRACES, Notre-Dame-de-Grace Avenue, 1851 (O. Maurault, "Les Origines Sulpiciennes de Notre-Dame-de-Grace", in Cent Ans de vie paroissiale, 1953, 8; Montreal, Les Eglises, 1981, 112-17, illus.; H. Kalman, History of Canadian Architecture, 1994, 315, illus. & descrip.)
CHURCH OF THE VISITATION, Sault-au-Recollet, Gouin Boulevard East, a facade for the church, 1851 (R. Traquair & E. Adair, "Church of the Visitation - Sault-au-Recollet, Quebec", in R.A.I.C. Journal, iv, Dec. 1927, 441, 450, illus.; Montreal, Les Eglises, 1981, 62-71, illus.)
(with H.M. Perrault) LACHINE CANAL, Toll Collector's Office opposite Basin No. 1, 1851, demol. (La Minerve [Montreal], 30 Sept. 1851, 2, t.c.)
MONTREAL GAOL, Pied-du-Courant, addition of East Wing, 1851-52 (Montreal, Les Edifices Publics, 1981, 244-47, illus.)
CHURCH OF ST. ANNE, McCord Street, Griffintown, 1851; demol. 1970 (O. Maurault, "Les Origines Sulpiciennes de Notre-Dame-de-Grace", in Cent ans de vie paroissiale, 1953, 8)
FROTHINGHAM & WORKMAN HARDWARE BLOCK, St. Paul Street West, 1852 (PAC, RG 11, 20, Item 21939; E. James, 69, illus.)
HANOVER STREET, a row of six houses, 1852 (Montreal Transcript, 1 April 1852, 2, t.c.)
PROVINCIAL AGRICULTURAL AND INDUSTRIAL EXHIBITION, McTavish Grounds, Sherbrooke Street West, various buildings, 1853 (Montreal Transcript, 9 July 1853, 2, t.c.)
CANADA SUGAR REFINERY, Canal Street, 1854, substantially altered (inf. Redpath Sugar Museum Archives, Toronto; E. James, 68, illus.)
GRAND SEMINAIRE DE MONTREAL, Sherbrooke Street West, 1854 (Grand Seminaire de Montreal - Album prepare a l'occasion du centenaire 1840-1940, 1945, 45; Montreal, Les Couvents, 1984, 140-55, illus.; E. James, 70-71, illus.)
(with H.M. Perrault) NOTRE-DAME-DE-NEIGES CEMETERY, COTE DES NEIGES, 1854 (La Minerve [Montreal], 10 Oct. 1854, 2, descrip.)
EGLISE SAINT JACQUES, St. Denis Street, 1854-57, burned 1858 except for lower portion of facade; reconstructed by Victor Bourgeau (Montreal Transcript, 11 Oct. 1854, 2, descrip.; O. Maurault, Saint-Jacques de Montreal, 1923, 51-52, illus.; E. James, 86-89, illus.)
ISLE DORVAL, Upper Lachine, a stone mansion for an unnamed client, 1855 (Montreal Transcript, 23 Jan. 1855, 2, t.c.)
NAZARETH STREET, two houses for Mrs. John Garven, 1856 (ANQM, Notary T. Doucet, Contract 10592, 30 Oct. 1856)
RESERVOIRS, NEW CITY GAS COMPANY, Ottawa Street, 1859-61 (Montreal, Architecture Industrielle, 1982, 156-59, illus.)


OTTAWA, ONT., Gaol & Court House, 1839. Ostell was one of six competitors from Ottawa and Montreal to submit a design for this public building, but his scheme was not premiated. A prize of £25 was awarded to H.B. Parry of Montreal (Gazette [Montreal], 17 Sept. 1839, 3)
MONTREAL, QUE., Bonsecours Market, 1844. Among the fifteen designs submitted by architects from Montreal and Toronto was one by 'J. Ouellet [sic]', which may have been a typographical error or a misreading of the name 'J. Ostell' (see list of competitors in the Montreal Transcript, 30 April 1844, 2). The winning scheme was prepared by William Footner.
TORONTO, ONT. In 1849 Ostell entered the competition for St. James Anglican Cathedral, King Street, Toronto, and was awarded second prize of £50 for his scheme which was was described as one presented in the style '....of the first and second period of Early English, very well drawn, and in accordance with the Conditions; a very good design' (Globe [Toronto], 13 Oct. 1849, 2). The first premium was awarded to Frederic Cumberland.