Metcalf, John Sanborn

METCALF, John Sanborn (1847-1912), a talented engineer and architect who can be credited with designing some of the largest and most complex grain elevator structures in Canada. These iconic Canadian buildings, often referred to as “the cathedrals of the 20th Century”, came to symbolize the remarkable potential and possibilities of concrete construction, and were lauded by leading European architects such as Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier for their elegant simplicity and purity of form.

Born in Sherbrooke, Quebec in 1847, Metcalf was educated at Cookshire Academy and moved to the United States in 1870 and settled in Indianapolis, Ind. There, he developed a strong interest and inclination toward architectural engineering, and became a superintendent of construction of early steel grain elevator prototypes in the mid-west. In 1887 he moved to Chicago, forming a partnership with T.K. Webster and James MacDonald, and specialized in the design of grain elevators. When that firm was dissolved in 1894, Metcalf opened his own office as engineer and architect. His name appears consistently as an “architect” in the yearly editions of the Chicago City Directories from 1894 onward, and his profession of “architect” is similarly recorded in William T. Comstock, The Architects Directory for the United States & Canada in the editions of 1895-96, 1904, 1907, 1909 and 1912-13. He was highly sought after as an expert in the design and construction of reinforced concrete elevators, and in 1903 he patented a process using “slip form construction” to rapidly build these huge storage and transfer silo buildings in several American cities.

His first Canadian commission was in Montreal, Que. for the Grand Trunk Railway (1903-06), a structure often referred to as Grain Elevator B. This vast complex was to become one of the most significant landmarks of industrial architecture in Canada in the 20th C., and enabled Montreal to take the title as the largest grain port in the world. He also designed a much more influential project in Montreal, called Grain Elevator No. 2 (1910-12; demol. 1983) which was widely published and praised as an extraordinary feat of engineering and architectural design.

Metcalf was also directly involved in the design and construction of the important Grain Elevator “A” at Fort William, Ont. (1908-10), another landmark of Canadian industrial architecture which the French architect Le Corbusier used in his highly influential treatise Vers Une Architecture [Paris], first published in the French language in 1923 (and illustrated on page 18 of his treatise), and again reproduced in the first English edition Towards a New Architecture [London], 1927, page 30. For this project, Metcalf approved the plans prepared by the staff of the Canadian Stewart Co. Ltd., and he served as resident engineer and inspected the construction of the structure. A full illustrated account of this project, showing the photographs later used by Le Corbusier, was published in The Engineering & Contract Record [Toronto], xxv, 22 March 1911, 35-39, and in the Canadian Engineer [Toronto], xxi, 16 Nov. 1911, 565-68. Other examples of work by the Metcalf company can be found as far west as Victoria, B.C. and as far east as Halifax, N.S.

Metcalf died unexpectedly at the age of sixty-five, at Evanston, Ill. on 4 March 1912 (obituary Chicago Daily Tribune, 5 March 1912, 2; obituary Contract Record [Toronto], xxvi, 13 March 1912, 63-4; obit. Canadian Engineer [Toronto], xxii, 14 March 1912, 419). His firm continued to operate under the name of John S. Metcalf Company until after 1950, and that company designed major additions to the Canadian silo complexes which Metcalf himself had designed. A detailed biography and photo portrait of Metcalf can be found in J. Seymour Currey, Chicago: Its History and Its Builders, 1912, Vol. 5, 52-56.

OWEN SOUND, ONT., a one-million bushel grain elevator for the Canada-Atlantic Railway Co., 1897 (Chicago Tribune, 10 June 1897, 9)
MONTREAL, QUE., a 500,000 bushel fireproof grain elevator for the Ogilvie Flour Mills Co., 1903-04 (Daily Inter-Ocean [Chicago], 15 March 1903, 22)
MONTREAL, QUE. Grain Elevator “B” (an abbreviation for Bikerdike Channel), for the Grand Trunk Railway Co., on Pointe du Moulin, near Commune Street and Mill Street, 1903-06; additions 1913-16, 1923-24, and 1958-59 (Grain Elevators of North America, 5th edit., 1942, 120, illus. & descrip.; Melvin Charney, “The Grain Elevators Revisted” in Architectural Design [London], xxxvii, July 1967, 328-31, illus. & descrip.; I. Gournay & F. Vanlaethem, Montreal Metropolis 1880-1930, 1998, 54; Globe & Mail [Toronto], 8 March 2019, H4, illus. & descrip., but lacking attribution to Metcalf)
FORT WILLIAM, ONT., grain elevator, for the Ogilvie Milling Co., near Maureen Street, 1903 (C.R., xiv, 18 March 1903, 2-3; Weekly Times-Journal [Fort William], 7 March 1903, 2; Architectural Review [London], lxxii, Nov. 1932, 230, illus.)
GODERICH, ONT., major addition to the grain elevator, Harbour Street, overlooking Goderich Harbour, 1907
FORT WILLIAM, ONT. Grand Trunk Pacific Grain Elevator “A”, on the river delta formed by the Kaministiquia River and the Mission River, near Duncan Street, 1908-10 (C.R., xxv, 22 March 1911, 35-39, illus. & descrip.; Canadian Engineer [Toronto], xxi, 16 Nov. 1911, 565-68, illus. & descrip.; The Architects' & Builders' Journal [London], xxxv, 31 Jan. 1912, 130-31, illus. & descrip.; Reyner Banham, A Concrete Atlantis: U.S. Industrial Building and European Modern Architecture, 1986, 206, illus.)
PORT McNICOLL, ONT., grain elevator, at the end of Talbot Street, facing Victoria Harbour and Georgian Bay, for the Canadian Pacific Railway, 1910; additions, 1912, 1927; all demol. March 2009 (Engineering Record [New York], lxiv, 14 Oct. 1911, 440-42, illus. & descrip.)
MONTREAL, QUE., Grain Elevator No. 2, Commissioners Street, opposite Bonsecours Market, 1910-12; demol. 1983 (Canadian Engineer [Toronto], xxii, 18 Jan. 1912, 179-80, illus. & descrip.; xxiii, 3 Oct. 1912, 537-41, illus. & descrip.; Engineering Record [New York], lxvi, 5 Oct. 1912, 383-85, illus. & descrip.; Le Corbusier, Vers une Architecture, 1923, 18, illus.; Le Corbusier, Towards A New Architecture, 1927, 30, illus., but erroneously identified as “American Grain Stores and Elevators“; Reyner Banham, A Concrete Atlantis: U.S. Industrial Building and European Modern Architecture, 1986, 206, illus.; I. Gournay & F. Vanlaethem, Montreal Metropolis 1880-1930, 1998, 54, 150, illus.)
SAINT JOHN, N.B., grain elevator, near Albert Street and Minette Street, in West Saint John, 1912-13 (Canadian Engineer [Toronto], xxiii, 8 Aug. 1912, 295, descrip.)
MONTREAL, QUE., Miron Grain Silo No. 3, Notre Dame Street East near Pie IX Boulevard, in the Hochelega-Maisonneuve neighbourhood, 1923; additions 1928 (Grain Elevators of North America, 5th edit., 1942, 118-19, illus. & descrip.; I Gournay & F. Vanlaethem, Montreal Metropolis 1880-1930, 1998, 54)
VANCOUVER, B.C., No. 2 Grain Elevator, for the Vancouver Harbour Commissioners, at the Ballantyne Pier, 1924-25 (Vancouver Daily World, 26 Feb. 1924, 9, illus. & descrip.)
TORONTO, ONT., grain elevator and malt house for Canada Malting Co., at the foot of Bathurst Street, at the Western Gap facing Toronto Harbour,, 1928 (Toronto b.p. A 6097, 21 March 1928; b.p. A 6098, 21 March 1928)
VANCOUVER, B.C., major annex to Grain Elevator No. 1, for the Vancouver Harbour Commissioners, near Powell Street, overlooking Burrard Inlet, c. 1928 (Grain Elevators of North America, 5th edit., 1942, 126-27, illus. & descrip.)
VICTORIA, B.C., Panama Pacific Grain Elevator, at Ogden Point Pier No. 3, 1928 (Grain Elevators of North America, 5th edit., 1942, 128, illus. & descrip.)
HALIFAX, N.S., annex to the Halifax Grain Elevator, South Bland Street near Inglis Street, 1930 (Grain Elevators of North America, 5th edit., 1942, 122-23, illus. & descrip.)