About Stewart & Witton

Rediscovering Stewart & Witton: A Brilliant Partnership, 1904–17

The John Weir Foote Armoury National Historic Site, in Hamilton, Ontario, seen from James St. North. The Armoury is an imposing red brick building, with decorative arch and stone details.
The John Weir Foote Armoury National Historic Site, Hamilton. Image: Doors Open Ontario.

Did future partners Walter Stewart and William Witton meet at the Hamilton Library?

Both were just seventeen years old when, in January 1889, Hamiltonians voted to build a free public library. Stewart was a third-generation architect in training, Witton an art student. Both of their families were instrumental to this new Hamilton institution. Witton’s father, the master painter, scholar, and MP Henry Buckingham Witton, was appointed to the first Hamilton Public Library Board, while Stewart’s father, the architect William Stewart, won the commission to design the neo-Romanesque library on Main near MacNab.

The first Hamilton Public Library, seen from the southeast from Main Street West, in a black & white photo. Centenary Methodist Church (now New Vision United Church) is seen to the west of the Victorian library building. The library is a neo-Romanesque building, with pointed roofs, round arches over the windows, and decorative brick details.
The Hamilton Library (William Stewart, 1889–90) was the first purpose-built public library in Ontario. Photo: Local History & Archives, Hamilton Public Library.

Fifteen years later, they would embark on a highly successful partnership: Stewart & Witton, the Hamilton firm behind some of the city’s most beloved landmarks. Tragically, Stewart died in April, 1917 at Vimy Ridge. Stewart & Witton’s legacy is all around us — yet often, the firm’s work is popularly attributed to Witton alone. Thus, celebrating #StewartWitton150 is also a project of recovery.

The Playhouse Cinema on Sherman Ave North, in Hamilton, Ontario, seen illuminated at night. It has a sloped roof, two-tone brickwork, white wooden trim and dentellation, white wooden panneling on the ground level, and a blue & red neon sign.
The Playhouse Cinema on Sherman Avenue North, Hamilton (Stewart & Witton, 1914). Image: Playhouse Cinema.

Walter Wilson Stewart was born in Covington, Kentucky to Canadian parents, moving to Toronto with his family as an infant, and to Hamilton in 1885. Until William Stewart’s retirement, father and son worked together in the family architecture firm. In the 1880s, Stewart & Son designed commissions in Toronto including the St. Stephen’s Ward Police Station on Ossington and a pavilion in Queen’s Park. The young architect apprenticed with his father until 1890, when he left Canada to train in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Two of Stewart père’s most admired works, Victoria Hall National Historic Site and the Right House, may have been conceived during Walter’s apprenticeship.) Upon his return from the U.S., he became a partner in W. & W. Stewart, also known as Stewart & Stewart (1893–1904). One of their last commissions together was another public library, in Collingwood, Ontario.

Black and white photo of the Carnegie library in Collingwood, Ontario, flanked by trees and with the words PUBLIC LIBRARY under the pediment. The library has arched details in the brickwork, and a grand front entryway with a broad staircase leading up to a double doorway.
The Collingwood Carnegie library (W. & W. Stewart 1902–3) Image: Waymarking.

William Palmer Witton was born in Hamilton to a prominent family, the youngest of three brothers. After graduating from the Hamilton Art School, he trained in Chicago at the influential firm of Adler & Sullivan. Witton founded his own architecture firm in 1895, continuing in practice until 1937. Hamilton’s Witton Lofts — a conversion of the 1923 McIlwraith School — are named after him.

Neo-medieval carved decoration representing school work, against a ground of polychrome brick at the former McIlwraith School in Hamilton, Ontario. The decorations show two figures with tablets depicting reading and math.
Detail, Witton Lofts / former McIlwraith School (50 Murray St. W.) Photo: Core Urban

At Adler & Sullivan, the young Witton likely worked alongside Frank Lloyd Wright. Witton’s time there overlapped with the end of Wright’s: the famous American architect left to strike out on his own circa June, 1893.

Ornamental glass window panel from the firm of Adler & Sullivan, with Victorian lettering reading Adler & Sullivan Architects
Glass window panel from the firm of Adler & Sullivan. Photo courtesy of The Richard Nickel Committee and Archive / Dwell.

In 1904, Stewart & Witton took over what had been the Stewart & Stewart offices at the Provident and Loan Building on Hughson Street South. For most of the partnership, Stewart lived with his wife and family in the Gibson neighbourhood, near what was then St. Giles Presbyterian, while Witton, a confirmed bachelor, lived with his parents in the family home on Murray Street West and, later, Hess Street South.

The westernmost of two grand, late-Victorian semis in red brick with cream trim and a tall old tree in the front, in Durand, Hamilton. Seen on a sunny day, with sunlight dappling the lush front garden.
64 Charlton Ave W. and Charlton Hall, at right, early Witton commissions that show the influence of Adler & Sullivan. Photo: Vogel Creative / Judy Marsales Real Estate Ltd. via Fresh Brick.
The Herkimer Apartments in Hamilton's Durand neighbourhood, seen illuminated at night.
The Herkimer Apartments in Hamilton’s Durand neighbourhood. Photo: Christoph Benfey / Core Urban.

When Stewart died in action in WW1, he left his widow, Margaret Fraser Stewart (née Johnson), and their four children — Helen Margaret, Dorothy Enid, Walter Fraser, and John Lamont — at the family’s new home in Kirkendall. The late architect’s professional effects passed to his partner, William Witton, while his collection of war medals was bequeathed to the 91st Canadian Highlanders.

The 1916 Stewart family home, designed at the same time as the Herkimer Apartments. The house is seen from the front on a sunny summer day. It has two arched dormer windows facing the road, cream-coloured trim, decorative patterns in the brickwork (including arches over the ground-level windows), and a porch with columns.
The Stewart family home (54 Homewood Ave), designed in 1916 by Stewart & Witton at the same time as the Herkimer Apartments. Photo: Janet Long.

After Stewart’s death, Witton worked alone and in two partnerships, Witton & Walsh (1920–27) and Witton & Holcombe (1932–37). Witton’s career in architecture was the focus of a Hamilton exhibit in 2009 and, ten years later, a 2019 talk at the newly reopened Playhouse Cinema (itself a building designed by Stewart & Witton). In 2021, Ann Gillespie confirmed his hand in the design of the Long and Bisby building.

The pale blue, neo-classical portico of the Long and Bisby nurses' residence on the Mountain in Hamilton, Ontario.
The Long and Bisby building (Witton & Walsh, 1921) Image: City of Hamilton Archives.

Like his father, Witton was a passionate bibliophile. At the time of his death, in 1947, he had a 500-book library of architecture and Canadiana at the family home at 290 Hess St. S. in Durand. Today, his books can be found at the City of Montreal, the Hamilton Public Library, and McMaster University.

“W.P. Witton’s art & architecture books housed at Mac, distributed throughout the open and closed stack, and Research Collections, give a rare insight into a working architect’s library — an extraordinary library at that.”

Robert D. Hamilton

Stewart & Witton’s genius lives on in the buildings they designed. As Hamiltonians and Canadians, we can honour their work by enjoying and protecting the beautiful buildings they brought to us — including St. Giles church, which is in danger of demolition.

Black and white photo of St. Giles church in Hamilton, Ontario. The photo shows its west elevation in 1916, shortly after its construction. It is a neo-gothic brick chuch, with detailed tracery, a square tower, and beautiful windows.
The west elevation of St. Giles Church circa 1916, shortly after its construction. Image: Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library / Internet Archive.

Sources and acknowledgments: Architectural Foundation of Cincinnati, Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Canada, 1800–1950; Graham Crawford; Dictionary of Hamilton Biography; The Frank Lloyd Wright Trust; Ann Gillespie, “Hamilton’s Health Care Heritage,” ACORN Vol. 46 No. 1 (Spring 2021); Robert D. Hamilton, MLIS; Paul Wilson, “The architect no one knows,” Hamilton Spectator, July 2009.

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