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Isaac Smith (1795-1871)

Isaac Smith, his wife Jane (1793-1856), and his brother Henry, all left their home in North Yorkshire, England on March 22, 1817 aboard a brigantine named The Valiant. They arrived in Prince Edward Island three months later on June 25th. The voyage had not been uneventful. On the way, their ship lived up to its name by saving sixty passengers and crew from a sinking vessel. The second trip to Charlotte Town, which arrived on June 7, 1818 did not end well for The Valiant's Captain Ezard, who succumbed to an asthma attack. He was interred in the Elm Avenue cemetery.

Isaac Smith had come from humble beginnings, but in Prince Edward Island, he would create some of the most enduring and iconic public buildings arguably in all of Canada. It is unclear if his father, Richard, had any formal training as a builder, but both Isaac and Henry arrived on the Island with carpentry skills. They were also familiar with fine examples of Neo-classical architecture, especially Duncombe Park, the estate of Lord Feversham, on whose lands the Smith family lived. This property, now open to visitors annually from May to October, is set in magnificent manicured grounds and includes a Christmas tree plantation!

The main house, completed in 1713, features a centre portico with triangular pediment supported by four classical columns. This feature would influence buildings Isaac would design in Prince Edward Island.

Isaac and Jane made their first home in a property once located at the corner of Richmond and Prince Streets in Charlottetown. It had been owned by former governor, Edmund Fanning (1739-1818). The first instance we know of his working at carpentry came shortly after his arrival, when he was hired by Matilda Brecken, who would later become the wife of Dr. John Mackieson and reside at 238 Pownal Street. People with his skills were in short supply in the Island capital and this became more acute with the death in 1820 of John Plaw, another Englishman who had come to PEI and left his mark designing public buildings. Plaw's courthouse/legislative building was standing proud in the centre of town on Queen Square. He had also drawn plans for a round market to be built next to it, but this was left undone at the time of his death. By 1823, Isaac and Henry Smith were given the task of completing Plaw's market. They also were building private homes in the City, including one that still stands at 100 Prince Street (1827).

By 1830, Isaac Smith would begin working on projects such as the design for a new jail on Pownal Square in Charlottetown; a courthouse and jail for Georgetown (1831); a courthouse and jail for St. Eleanor's (1832); and an Anglican church for Charlottetown (1831). All of these buildings no longer exist having been demolished or, in the case of the Georgetown courthouse and Anglican church, having been replaced by other versions designed by William Critchlow Harris.

In 1832, Isaac and Henry submitted a proposal for one of their more enduring buildings: a new residence for the Lieutenant Governor. Government House or Fanningbank, built in the neo-classical style, was ready for occupancy on December 1, 1834. Perhaps echoing an aspect of Duncombe Park, it has a symmetrical facade with a central four columned portico over the main entrance.

The success of this project greatly raised Isaac Smith's profile in the eyes of the government for future endeavours. In the 1830s, the Smith brothers would also design the Central Academy (later Prince of Wales College - on the site of the current Holland College) as well as plans for a lunatic asylum. This asylum was not completed until 1845 in the Brighton area of Charlottetown. It would later be replaced by the Falconwood Asylum designed by David Stirling. Neither the academy nor the asylum survive.  An important building which has survived was begun in 1838.  St. Augustine's Roman Catholic Church in Rustico has been attributed to Isaac Smith and is a fine early Island example of the Gothic Revival style.

By 1839, Plaw's 1812 Courthouse and Legislature was becoming increasingly unsuitable to the needs of the Island's government. It would be 1842 before construction of its replacement would begin and Isaac Smith would be hired to oversee the construction of his winning design. Once again, he chose the neo-classical style with symmetrical facades, each with its own four columned portico. The work on this new Colonial Building began a year later and was completed by 1847. Still the seat of the Island's government, Province House, is also a national historic treasure as the place where the first meeting was held which led to Canadian nationhood. In an engraving from the Illustrated London News from 1860, during the visit of Edward, Prince of Wales, Isaac's new building can be seen on the right, and immediately above it, is the round market and above that the old courthouse/assembly, both of which Plaw had designed. They had both been moved to the west side of Queen Square to accomodate Province House. Today, the Confederation Centre of the Arts occupies that spot.

In 1845, Smith was commissioned to complete what is today the Island's oldest lighthouse at Point Prim. This navigation beacon was essential for the safety of vessels approaching the Charlottetown harbour. It remains a well preserved and unique example of his work.

By 1848, Isaac Smith embarked on a new phase of his life. He had always been a deeply spiritual man who was influenced by his father who had sent him to a Wesleyan Methodist Sunday School in Yorkshire. Now in his fifties, he became a travelling agent for the Nova Scotia British and Foreign Bible Society. He and Jane had been active members of Charlottetown's Methodist Society, where in 1829, he taught a Thursday evening Bible class. In 1833, he had designed a new Methodist Meeting House on the corner of Prince and Richmond Streets in Charlottetown. This was later replaced by a new brick church designed by Thomas Alley in 1863.

His new role as a missionary, delivering Bibles around the Atlantic region, periodically took him away from the Island. This faith was tested in 1856, when Jane passed away. By 1860, Isaac had remarried a widow, Lucy Anne Hamilton, of the small settlement of Selmah near Maitland, Hants County, Nova Scotia. He passed away there on November 4, 1871.

For further reading: Marianne Morrow, "The Builder: Isaac Smith and Early Island Architecture," The Island Magazine, No. 18, Fall/Winter 1985: 17-23.

C.W.J. Eliot and Reginald Porter, "The Changing Face of Fanning Bank," The Island Magazine, No. 29, Spring/Summer 1991: 29-33.

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