BUTLER, WILLIAM FREDERICK, carpenter and architect; b. 22 June 1866 in St John’s, son of Thomas Butler, a farmer, and Elizabeth Stoneman; m. first 11 June 1890 Sybil Knee in Toronto, and they had a daughter; m. secondly 6 Oct. 1896 Mina Elizabeth Ellis in St John’s; d. 24 Feb. 1918 at sea near Cappahayden, Nfld.
William F. Butler began his working life as a carpenter. Sometime before 1890 he entered the Toronto Technical School to gain formal training in drawing and construction. A Congregationalist, in 1890 he married Sybil Knee, also a native of St John’s. After three years’ work in Toronto, during which time Sybil ran a dressmaking business in their home, William went to Chicago as a superintendent of works for the Columbian exposition. He spent part of 1994 working in Madison, Wis., as superintendent of building construction for N. F. Frederickson and Sons, and in the autumn of that year he returned to St John’s. The great fire there in 1892 had done so much damage that rebuilding was still in progress. With his experience, Butler must have felt that there was an opportunity to establish himself. A measure of the available work is the fact that between 1892 and 1896 there were 15 architects in St John’s, compared with 7 between 1897 and 1900.
In the decade following his return, Butler’s business included shops, stores, factories, institutional buildings, and houses. Much of this work involved his superintendence of building and some of it comprised design, though the little that can be identified as his is not particularly notable. Of the architects who had lasted until 1900, at least one, William Howe Greene*, had almost ceased work by 1903. Although Butler initially did not have either Greene’s connections or his credentials, in 1903 he was very busy designing stores, houses, and factories. By 1906 the press of business meant that he could take John M. MacDonald, his draughtsman since 1904, into a partnership that would last until 1912. Though Butler left few distinguished commercial buildings on Water Street, in the business core obliterated in 1892, he could execute good commercial work. His offices for the Commercial Cable Company, erected on Water Street in 1915, constituted a finely modelled classical structure – reported in Contract Record (Toronto) to be “the first building of fireproof construction in Newfoundland.”
Butler excelled in residential work for business people. In 1904 he had begun work on a residence for Marmaduke George Winter*, a local merchant and manufacturer. This house, Winterholme, is the most elaborate example of the Queen-Anne Revival style in Newfoundland. Characteristically, it is quite eclectic in its architectural borrowings: medieval half-timbering with a classical and Romanesque vocabulary. Winterholme has a classical portico flanked on one side by a pedimented bay, on the other by a towered bay. The interior is remarkably rich in its woodwork and plasterwork. With this house Winter appears to have established a standard for the wealthy of St John’s, but no other house matches its opulence. In another sense Winterholme represents a remarkable change in Newfoundland: no longer was the wealthy entrepreneur retiring to England and putting on his display there. This change is coincidental with the move from an economy based almost entirely on the fishery to one with a growing focus on land-based industry. It is significant that Winter was involved in a range of manufacturing interests and that Butler was his architect for an office-warehouse and at least two factories for the Standard Manufacturing Company.
Of the dozen or so Queen-Anne mansions built on the streets surrounding Government House, over half are attributed to or are by Butler, and they are the most imaginative in form and composition. One particularly interesting group is Bartra and its neighbours. Built on Circular Road in 1906 for businessman Walter Stanley Monroe*, Bartra is a large two-and-a-half-storey, gable-roof house in the colonial manner of the Queen-Anne style; the two smaller houses on either side, designed in the same manner, create the sense of a residence with flanking wings.
By 1912 Butler was an established architect who had come a long way from his days as a carpenter. According to one biographical account in 1912, he was a member of the “Canadian Architect’s Association” (most likely the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada). In his private life, he had switched to the Presbyterian Church and had become a freemason, a supporter of the People’s party in politics, and a director of the Empire Woodworking Company. While his architecture reflects the national and economic confidence of merchants who had opted to settle, his own life gives evidence of another adaptation made by the well-to-do: the winter flight to the sun. Both Butler and his daughter, Alice, were prone to ill health and the family went to California and Florida regularly each year for two or more months. According to the St John’s Evening Telegram in 1907, Butler also used these journeys to investigate the latest developments in architecture and building technology. In 1918, en route to California to visit his daughter, Butler and his wife were among those lost when the Florizel struck the rocks off Cappahayden.
The most significant and prolific architect in St John’s in the period 1900–18, W. F. Butler was the designer of the largest and most elaborate Queen-Anne style houses built during that time. Because the rebuilding of St John’s was over and because its development in the years after 1918 was retarded by recession, the Great Depression, and later the collapse of government, it can also be said that Butler was the city’s most significant architect in the 20th century. Never again was there an opportunity for a single architect to leave such a collection of defining buildings.
Butler’s birthdate of 22 June 1866 is recorded in PANL, GN 30, vol.23. The date of 2 June 1867 given in his entry in Who’s who and why, 1912, is most likely wrong.
AO, RG 80-2-0-339, no.4377; RG 80-5-0-183, no.14469. Centre for Material Culture Studies, Memorial Univ. of Nfld (St John’s), Newfoundland historic buildings database, comp. Shane O’Dea. Supreme Court of Newfoundland (St John’s), Registry, probate records. Daily News (St John’s), 3 April 1904; 3 Feb. 1912; 15 May, 25 June, 28 Oct. 1915; 8 Feb. 1916; 27 Feb. 1918. Evening Telegram (St John’s), 17 Sept. 1902; 9 March, 9 May 1903; 23 April 1904; 17 Feb. 1906; 23 March 1907; 18 May 1908; 4 April 1910; 6 Feb., 15 May 1915. David Alexander, “Newfoundland’s traditional economy and development to 1934,” in Newfoundland in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: essays in interpretation, ed. J. [K.] Hiller and P. [F.] Neary (Toronto, 1980), 17–39. Cassie Brown, A winter’s tale: the wreck of the “Florizel” (Toronto and Garden City, N.Y., 1976). “Building activity in Newfoundland,” Contract Record (Toronto), 23 (1909), no.37: 25. Encyclopedia of Nfld. (Smallwood et al.), 5: 291, 592.