Construction firms are rarely the focus of architectural study, but in the case of the Pigott Building, there is merit to thinking about the role of technicians in the finished product.
By Barry Magrill, Ph.D.
Published January 04, 2011
The completion of the Pigott Construction Company's 18 storey Modern Gothic office tower on James Street (fig. 1) paralleled the 1929 Stock Market Crash. Capitalizing on the robust economy of the mid-1920s, the Pigott Company's executives had planned for the building's unprecedented height in the Hamilton region to reflect the robustness of its corporate strength.
A steel skeleton, rather than load bearing walls, was employed to attain that elevation. The skeleton was clad with a veneer of masonry dressed in the verticality of the Modern Gothic style. The Pigott building clothed its Modernist structural system in the historicist architectural language of pointed windows, decorative hood moldings, ornamented label stops, and a rib vault above the front entrance.
As a result, time and space were compressed by merging advanced technology and architectural precedent.
Fig. 1. Pigott Building, Hamilton, Ontario. Architects: Prack and Prack (1929).
Finishing the Pigott Building also occurred within a year's time of the inaugural meeting, in 1928, of the Congrès International d'Architecture Moderne (CIAM) when 24 influential European architects discussed the future of contemporary architectural practice.
What bearing this had on the Pigott building and the construction company that was headquartered inside it influenced the adoption of standardized materials and procedures. Standardization was promoted to construction companies like Pigott on the basis of increasing profitability.
The advanced method of construction used on the Pigott building demonstrated the close affiliation with the Modern principles of CIAM. Until the late 1920s, Canada, like the US, had been reluctant to accept the tenants of Modernism and so the Pigott Building represents an early example of these principles at work.
However, the acceptance of Modernism on a structural level in Canada was initially limited by veiling the structure in some kind of acceptable historical style.
Fig. 2. Chicago Tribune, Chicago, Illinois. Architects: Hood and Howells (1924).
The decorative design of the upper storeys of the Pigott Building designed by Bernard and Fred Prack is similar to the Chicago Tribune building (1924) by the architects Hood and Howells (fig.2). Though dissimilar in height, both towers rise rapidly through the middle section without set-back until the upper floors are reached, a strategy of maximizing the floorplate during the embryonic stages of city planning and minimal restrictions to skyscrapers (fig. 3).
The resemblance in the overall design schemes demonstrates Hamilton's cosmopolitan objective, affiliating itself with the historical aesthetic of New York and Chicago skyscrapers. The historical motifs employed at the Pigott Building were repeated in the lobby in the articulation of stained glass windows, set into narrow medieval-style lancets.
Fig. 3. Detail of Upper Floors of Pigott Building.
The windows depict vignettes from the company's construction trade and demonstrated the corporation's praise of manual labour. This was particularly interesting given the fact that, in 1929, virtually all of western civilization was poised on the brink of economic failure, a predicament that history records as being reversed by creating employment for the average worker.
Two sets of windows oppose each other in groups of three. The centre window of one set depicts the partially finished Pigott tower. The upper floors are shown incomplete in order to reveal the steel skeleton beneath the masonry veneer and concrete shell. It is a clever demonstration of the Pigott Construction Company's involvement in leading-edge architectural technology in the 1920s.
Fig. 4. Lobby Windows, (set 1). Pigott Building.
On either side of this window is shown a carpenter in blue overalls, posed midway up a ladder with saw in hand. The opposing figure depicts an architect, a scroll of blueprints in his hand, standing atop the building and surveying the city below. The stained glass depiction of the Pigott suggests that the construction company was at the forefront of their industry, and ahead of many architectural firms in Ontario clinging to the use of load bearing walls (fig.4).
The opposite side of the lobby has three matching lancet windows. The outer pair shows a mason with a trowel in hand, guiding a stone block into place. The scaffolding he stands upon allows the viewer to see the steel skeleton holding the masonry in place. The partner window depicts an ironworker standing on an I-beam as it is hoisted into position via an out-of-frame overhead crane. Finally, the middle window shows the final stages of construction of the Bank of Montreal on James Street (1928), built by the Pigott Company (fig. 5).
Fig, 5. Lobby Windows, (set 2). Pigott Building.
The windows reveal something compelling about the Pigott Construction Company. The firm positioned itself as a proponent of the latest technology while also remaining committed to stylistic tradition.
This was quite a contradiction to navigate, since proponents of modern technique tended to argue that historical styles were arbitrarily based on taste as opposed to good design principles. It seems that the Chairman of the Pigott Construction firm, Joseph M. Pigott (1885-1969), negotiated this discrepancy by advocating in favour of sound technological principles.
The strategy appeared to have been a good one. J.M. Pigott's diaries indicate that the firm did not suffer terribly for business during the Depression. In 1931 he remarked that "unemployment was acute" while noting that the company had recently taken on new contracts at the Royal Ontario Museum and additions to the Royal Connaught Hotel.
Over the years, the Pigott firm completed numerous significant contracts at the original McMaster Buildings (1930), the Cathedral of Christ the King (1933)(which garnered him a Knighthood in the Order of St. Gregory the Great by Pope Pius XI), Hamilton City Hall (1960), and Copps Coliseum (1985) to name only a few. During the war years, the company became committed to the construction of housing.
Construction firms are rarely the focus of architectural study. Architecture continues to be associated with artistic expression, and while I would not dispute it, there is merit to thinking about the role of technicians in the finished product.
Fig. 6. Rib Vault, Main Entrance, Pigott Building.
One need simply view the intimate rib vault above the main entrance alcove (fig. 6) to appreciate the remarkable technical proficiency of the firm's workforce no less than assay the breadth of its project undertakings to glimpse the managerial talent.
In the case of the Pigott Building, the technician and the manager was also the client. Joseph M. Pigott resisted the spare, linear treatment of International Modernism, placing its design squarely in tune with the historicizing tradition.
Joseph M. Pigott was inducted into the Hamilton-Halton Construction Association Hall of Fame in 1997. His commitment to the development of industry in the greater Hamilton region included serving as Vice-President and Director of the Toronto Dominion Bank and North American Life Insurance Company, as well as director of the Canada Permanent Trust, Atlas Steel, and United Fuel Investments Ltd. For meritorious service he received the Commander of the Order of British Empire (OBE) and an honourary law degree from McMaster University.
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