Important People in Canadian History: John Ostell

John Ostell, son of English saddler Isaac Ostell and an immigrant to Montreal in 1834 at the age of 21, was Montreal’s most important architect in the years 1836-59. He changed the face of the city with his design of some 25 major religious, civic and industrial buildings, as well as with his extensive surveying activities.

Chronicling all his business activities is daunting, so it is not surprising that what hasn’t been noted was his commitment to the Montreal Mechanics’ Institution (MMI est. 1828) and its successor organization, the Mechanics’ Institute of Montreal (MIM est. 1840).

Perhaps literally just off the boat, John Ostell was proposed for membership in the MMI on January 14, 1834 by ordnance officer William Antrobus Holwell and painter William Boston. He was elected to the MMI’s Committee of Managers the following year. Patterned after earlier institutes established in Glasgow and London, the MMI and MIM were set up in Montreal to offer technical courses and library support for working men in the new industrial age.

Legend has it that as a young lad of 17, John Ostell had visited Montreal, assessed the situation, and went back home to England to take surveyor and architecture training. After his arrival in Montreal to stay four years later,  he apprenticed himself to surveyor (arpenteur) André Trudeau where he learned Quebec practices in the surveying business and presumably honed his French. By July 1834, he had earned his surveyor’s certification (brevet de clériclature) and was on his way to a spectacular career in surveying and architecture.   He would sign himself, as the work warranted, as a surveyor, architect, or engineer.

In November 1835, he received his first major architectural commission, to design the Customs House on Place Royale, and the building was completed in 1836. It is now part of the Pointe-à-Callières museum.

By 1836 he had enough work to sign on William H. Mackenzie as an apprentice. There was a signed contract:  the apprentice swore to be diligent, and Ostell promised to instruct him “in the science and business of land surveying and things belonging.”

One of his first residential commissions was to design a house for lawyer Alexander Buchanan, a gracious building completed in 1837, still located at the corner of Sherbrooke and de Bullion in the area then known as Côte-à-Baron. The same year he designed twin houses for American-born railway and steamboat engine builders Samuel and Lebbeus Ward, on Wellington Street at King.

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