Frank Wills

Christ Church CathedralPhoto: D. Green
Christ Church Cathedral
Photo: D. Green

Frank Wills (architect, author, and editor) was baptized 25 December 1822 in Exeter, England. His year of birth is not documented but estimated to be 1819 or 1820, based on a Quebec newspaper report of his death in Montreal at the age of 37 on 23 April 1857. He was the second son of Charles Wills and Elizabeth Bolt.

Frank Wills exhibited at The Royal Academy of the Arts, London, from 1842 until he embarked for British North America in 1845. His exhibited drawings were certified by John Hayward, a prominent Exeter architect specializing in Gothic architecture; therefore, it is fair to assume that Hayward trained Wills as an apprentice. Wills’ drawings were also published in the Exeter Diocesan Architectural Society’s journal. Rev. John Medley was its founder.

Medley became the first Anglican Bishop of Fredericton, New Brunswick. He subscribed to ecclesiastic principles put forth by the Oxford Movement, founded by Medley’s friend and fellow Oxford classmate, John Keble, in 1833. Keble and other Oxford classmates became known as Tractarians. They copied ancient medieval church architecture as part of their advocacy for return to a strict “catholicity of worship.” Frank Wills, under the influence of John Hayward and John Medley, became a devoted Tractarian. He travelled to New Brunswick with Medley to begin Gothic Revival Architecture in British North America.

Immediately upon Medley’s appointment as Bishop, reformist parishioners in Fredericton, fearing Medley would corrupt their church with his Tractarian principles, mounted a resistance. Wills and Medley nevertheless began the construction of a Fredericton cathedral but could not raise the funds needed for its completion because of the controversy. The cathedral was put on hold, and the small, simpler St. Anne’s Chapel was designed and constructed by Wills instead. It was completed in March 1847. In 1848, with the construction of the larger cathedral still stalled, Medley left for London to try to raise funds for the continuation of the cathedral’s construction, and Frank Wills, out of work, left for New York City. The church was ultimately built with the plans designed by Wills. William Butterfield did assist Medley in England with changes to the plans of the church’s “tower, sanctuary and furnishings” (Harding 25).

Wills returned briefly to Fredericton to marry Emily Coster, the fourth daughter of an Archdeacon of New Brunswick and the rector of Fredericton. Emily Coster would give birth to a daughter and tragically die in 1850, two years after her marriage to Wills. Wills remarried in 1853 and had one son by his second wife, Almy Warne Casey, the daughter of a prominent Philadelphia iron merchant. Both his second wife and his children would survive him.

It was in New York City that Wills began his literary career when he founded the New York Ecclesiological Society and its journal, The New-York Ecclesiologist. Wills became the New York chapter’s editor, writing articles and reviews of his peers’ work (McFarland Abstract). For the first meeting of the society, in 1848, Wills gave a speech based on the principle of “reality” in church architecture, stating “. . . there is nothing which more distinctly expresses the mind of an age than does its Architecture” (Wills “Reality”). This article and other unattributed articles in the journal were later incorporated into his historic, precedent-setting book, Ancient English Ecclesiastic Architecture and its Principles, Applied to the Wants of the Church at the Present Day (1850). It is an impassioned plea for the elevation of the practice of architecture to high art. The work is equally a plea for ecclesiastic adherence to medieval church architecture and the maintenance of “High Church,” Catholic doctrine as advocated by Tractarianism. The book was reviewed favorably in his journal by his ecclesiologist peers, and fellow members of England’s Ecclesiological Society also praised it in their journal. Canadian scholar Elizabeth McFarland, in her dissertation on Wills at Cornell University in 2007, corroborates that the book received good reviews from rival publications, such as Church Review and The Ecclesiastical Register, both Episcopal publications. She also notes another “surprising” review lauding Wills’ book in the Episcopal Recorder, a journal known for “Low Church” (Evangelical) sentiments. Amazingly, the “Low Church” journal offered the “High Church” book for sale (McFarland 11).

In his book, Wills traces the architectural evolution of English church architecture through Saxon and Norman churches to the onset of three stages of what was commonly called Gothic, but Wills called “Pointed,” its principle being that the church’s architecture was pointed to heaven. Wills does an especially admirable job of history telling; however, it is his exquisite literary voice that distinguishes the book, and it is pure theater. His laborious, hand-drawn depictions of ancient churches and their architecture are works of art, photographic in detail, but it is his descriptions of architecture that give the book its sensual delight. His imagery of the interior of a cathedral is euphoric and replete with metaphor, including his attribution of its “climax” to the church’s Altar (55).

The book is a first effort at an architectural digest. Wills argues for the elevation of architecture to art with a spectacular oration on its scientific and artistic merits and its beauty and place in civilization’s ascent. The book’s opening statement becomes prophesy:

If there be one art more than another which deserves to be studied by a man of liberal education, it is that of Architecture: its universality and antiquity should at least raise it to the same dignity we all acknowledge to be due to her younger sisters, Sculpture and Painting. (7)

Wills died just seven years after his book was published. The society he founded closed down the year after his death, when his lasting contributions became clear: he is credited with the design of thirty to fifty churches in America and Canada. The discrepancy in the figures may be attributed to the fact that he designed and sold a rote plan for the implementation of an inexpensive Gothic church, another precedent-setting first.

Francis Sherman, one of Fredericton’s Confederation Poets, wrote a group of poems called “The Deserted City,” dedicated to his hometown. One of them, “House of Color,” is a probable tribute to John Medley’s and Frank Wills’ beautiful and colorful cathedral. The poem begins with a description of a ceiling of “heavy gold” (Sherman 108). Wills likewise prescribes a ceiling for a church “blazing with gold and colour” (107). The ceiling over the chancel choir area in the Fredericton cathedral is indeed painted with gold and colour.

Wills’ main competitor for Gothic Revival work in America, Richard Upjohn, who kept Wills’ book in his library, founded the American Institute of Architecture (AIA), the year after Wills’ death. Frank Lloyd Wright, born in 1867, was named the most famous architect of all time by the AIA in 1991. According to Wright’s biography, his mother, the daughter and niece of Unitarian “Low Church” ministers, decided at his birth that he would be an architect. To encourage his destiny, she framed and placed reproduced engravings of Ancient English Church Architecture, found in a periodical, on his nursery walls. They can be no other than Frank Wills’ drawings. Wills referred to his journal, the first to solely address architecture, as a periodical; he was its lithographer. We can logically imagine that a mother’s inspiration for her son, Frank Lloyd Wright, arose if she saw the drawings in the home of her father or when she read Frank Wills’ story of his beloved architecture in his book.

Andrea Silverthorne, Winter 2010
St. Thomas University

Bibliography of Primary Sources

Wills, Frank. Ancient English Ecclesiastical Architecture and Its Principle, Applied to the Wants of the Church at the Present Day. New York: Stanford and Swords, 1850.

---. “Forms and Arrangement of Churches.” The New-York Ecclesiologist I (1848): 53-54.

---. “Forms and Arrangement of Churches No. II, The Nave.” The New-York Ecclesiologist 2 (1849): 103-106.

---. “On the Arrangement of a Cathedral, as Differing From That of a Parish Church.” The New-York Ecclesiologist 2 (1849): 171-178.

---. “Reality in Church Architecture.” Paper Read at the Quarterly Meeting of The New-York Ecclesiological Society, New York. Apr. 1848. Canadian Anglican History. Project Canterbury. 30 Oct. 2010

---. “To the Editor of the The New-York Ecclesiologist.” The New-York Ecclesiologist 2 (1849): 94-95.

Bibliography of Secondary Sources

“Frank Lloyd Wright.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. The Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 29 Oct. 2010

“Frank Wills.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. The Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 15 Oct. 2010

Harding, Lyman N. Citizens With The Saints: A Brief History of Anglicanism in New Brunswick. Fredericton, NB: Sesquicentennial Committee of the Diocese of Fredericton, 1994.

Lerner, Loren R., and Mary F. Williamson. Art and Architecture in Canada: A Bibliography and Guide to the Literature to 1981. Toronto, ON: U of Toronto P, 1991. Google Books. 20 Oct. 2010

McFarland, Elizabeth Ann. “The Invisible Text: Reading Between the Lines of Frank Wills’s Treatise.” Diss. Cornell U, 2007.

Richardson, Douglas [Scott]. “Christ Church Cathedral, Fredericton New Brunswick.” Diss. Yale U, 1966.

---. “Frank Wills.” Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Vol. 8. Toronto, ON: U of Toronto P, 1985. Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online. 2000. U of Toronto/U Laval. 30 Oct. 2010

Sherman, Francis. The Complete Poems of Francis Sherman. Ed. Lorne Pierce. Toronto, ON: The Ryerson Press, 1935.

Smith, Richard Upsher. Catholic Truth and Catholic Holiness: A Brief History of the Oxford Movement 18331845. Fredericton, NB: Christ Church Cathedral, n.d.

Stanton, Phoebe. The Gothic Revival and American Church Architecture. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1968.

Tuck, Canon Robert. “The Impact of Tractarism on the Maritimes.” The Atlantic Theological Conference. Charlottetown, PE. 30 June 1983. Canadian Anglican History. 2002. Project Canterbury. 21 Oct. 2010