The history of the McGill School of Architecture can be divided into three phases, with the first (1896- 1903), representing the brief formative years during which architectural education was introduced into the Faculty of Applied Science headed by Dean Henry Taylor Bovey (1878- 1908), a civil engineer.
In 1896, Sir William C. Macdonald, a great benefactor of McGill University, endowed a chair in Architecture which was offered to and occupied in that same year by Stewart Henbest Capper, a graduate in art history of the University of Edinburgh and once a student of the Beaux-Arts School in Paris. Recommended by Professor Gerald Baldwin Brown of Edinburgh (a close friend of McGill's principal) and meeting the requirements of the new position as a well-trained teacher, competent practising architect and a person "of the very highest character," Professor Capper was selected by Principal Sir William Peterson (1895-1919) to be the first director, laying the foundations of the present school and its architectural library.
Stewart Henbest Capper was born of English parents in Greater London in 1859 and received his education. from his ninth year onwards, in Edinburgh. After completing classical studies at the Royal High School, where he was "dux", or head student during his final year, he entered the University of Edinburgh. His education here was interrupted by one session spent at Heidelberg University. He graduated in 1880 with a Master of Arts (M.A.) degree with first class honours. During the next four years he was attached to the household of Sir Robert Morier, a distinguished British diplomat who was stationed first in Lisbon and then in Madrid, serving as tutor to the diplomat's son and on occasion as the diplomat's personal secretary.
In 1884 Capper went to Paris to study architecture at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and in the following year, he joined the "atelier libre" of Jean Louis Pascal (1837-1920), a Grand Prix winner (1866) and a favorite of students from England. After three years of study and without proceeding to the State Diploma, Capper returned to Edinburgh to practice architecture. He joined the office of Sir George Washington Browne to gain practical experience in architecture and after becoming an associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects, he commenced practice first in partnership with F.W. Simon and then on his own with an address on St. Andrew Square. A. girls' orphanage in Whitewich (a suburb of Glasgow), and a model workmen's dwellings in Blairhoyle, Perthshire, were the better known buildings designed by Capper, but of equal significance is his work as a conservationist in collaboration with none other than Sir Patrick Geddes, the noted botanist, regionalist and town-planner.
In 1887, one year after his marriage, Geddes moved to the Old Town of Edinburgh in order "to play a more direct role in the social and physical regeneration of the Old Town, in part through developing it as an academic/residential quarter, with the first halls of residence for students of the University. Geddes was active in conserving many old buildings near the famous Royal Mile in the historic part of Edinburgh, and Capper appears to have worked closely with him on several of his enterprises. Wardrop's Court (453- 461 Lawnmarket), Riddell's Close, and Nos. 3 and 5 James' Court, the latter for student accommodation, were either restored or rebuilt in accordance with Capper's designs. Capper also designed a five storey block of flats called Ramsay Garden, located on Castle Hill at the west end of the Royal Mile. Operated on a cooperative basis, Ramsay Garden was "commissioned, conceived and financed in part by Sir Patrick Geddes,"12 who also occupied one of its large apartment suites after the buildings' completion in 1893. And, it is of interest to note, that the construction of this building was done with the intent to lure men of professional standing and their families back to live in the Old Town which by the end of the 19th century had become an unfashionable part of the city.
In 1891 Capper was appointed a University Extension Lecturer at the University' of Edinburgh to give a course in architecture, and also served as an examiner in Archaeology and Art for the M.A. degree. At this stage, at 37 years of age, he was called to McGill.
Professor Capper was known to have been by both temperament and habit a teacher, a scholar and an administrator. He was a good speaker and had a winning address and a sunny personality. Always helpful, he was the best of companions and the most loyal of friends; moreover, he was a tactful and courteous person with an exceptional linguistic ability. Apart from his mother tongue and a good knowledge of classical Greek and Latin, he was fluent in French, Portuguese, Spanish and German, knew some Italian and learned to master, toward the end of his life, Arabic as well.13 In addition, he was a good pianist with a special fondness for Beethoven sonatas. He was never known to be a brilliant draughtsman, but was a good architectural critic of students' projects. He was above all a rationalist architect, keenly interested in the construction of buildings and retained throughout his life a penchant for Greek archaeology, and later on Egyptian.
Before Capper organized formal architectural education at McGill, as noted before, lectures had been given periodically by local practising architects in some of McGill's affiliated religious colleges, but with the appointment of a full-time professor of architecture to the newly created chair, lectures were formalized and structured into a four year course with a widened scope appropriate to the preparation of students for a professional degree. First year was preparatory and its Mathematics, Science, Descriptive Geometry and Drawing courses were taken jointly by both architectural and engineering students. Second year continued with a shared science content, but History of Architecture ("from the Heroic Age to the reign of Queen Anne"), Elements of Architecture, Building Construction and Design were added to the curriculum for architects. In third year, History of Art, History of Architecture, Design, Drawing and Model hug were taught parallel with Theory of Structures and "Hygiene", the latter a building services course. Emphasis on Design, Drawing,' and Modelling continued in fourth year with Domestic, Public and Ecclesiastical .4rcliitectzire, Specifications and Hygiene concluding the lecture course series.
All architectural lectures and studio courses were given by Professor Capper, some in alternate years, and the only other full-time teacher in the School, Henry F. Armstrong, a lecturer, taught Descriptive Geometry, Freehand Drawing, Lettering and Modelling. Women students were allowed to take Architectural and Modelling classes if special permission was granted.
The School of Architecture was housed in the old Macdonald Engineering Building. Two rooms in the northern half of the top storey of this building were allocated as studios for the architecture students. Free/land Drawing was given in one studio, an atelier-like "museum room," with a large collection of casts of friezes, metopes and figure sculptures lining its wall in the Beaux-Arts tradition. "All round the room, below the level of the clerestory (sic) windows, representative pieces have been arranged, about ninety feet in all, from the famous frieze of the Parthenon," replicas of the so-called Elgin frieze now housed in he British Museum additionally, three metopes from; the Parthenon, and 'a series of bas-reliefs, illustrative of mural surface decoration, Ancient Egyptian, Ancient Assyrian and Medieval Moorish" also were placed on the wall. Casts of six famous pieces of antique sculpture, the Venus of Milo, the Victory of Samothrace, the Madrid Museum Faun, the Diadumenos from the British Museum, the Mars of the Louvre, and the Discobolus of the Vatican Gallery stood around the room.
In the second studio both Architectural Drawing and Design was taught, and it too contained many casts of detail and ornament. These were arranged in four groups, namely, Greek, Roman, Gothic and Renaissance. Full size half capitals of the Parthenon, the Erechtheion and the Temple of Vesta at Tivoli, half size Doric and Ionic orders of the Theatre of Marcellus, "full-size reproductions of a caryatid figure, the famous Canephoros of the South Porch of the Erechtheion, now in the British Museum, complete with entablature and stylobate," were the samples of classical antiquity. The 15th century Gothic Madonna of Nuremberg and Michelangelo's The Slave and II Penseroso, were some of the Medieval and Renaissance examples respectively.
Professor Capper organized the acquisition of appropriate drafting room equipment that proved to be satisfactory years beyond his tenure as well as a collection of photographs and lantern slides used in history courses. Moreover, he also acquired splendid collections of architectural books and periodicals as well as works on Archaeology and the Fine Arts for a special architectural section of the University Library. (Apart from having endowed a chair in Architecture, Macdonald had also provided a very considerable sum for the initial expenses of equipment including an annual endowment for their maintenance and extension.)
George Taylor Hyde, Norman M. McLeod and Frank Peder (who had completed the preparatory year before Capper occupied the Chair of Architecture) were the first students to graduate with a B.Sc. (Architecture) degree in 1899. Other students also availed themselves of the new course, namely, W.W. Colpitts, A.F. Byers, S.R. Coote, and E.B. Staveley, the last three, however, were registered as partial students only.
Professor Capper was fond of soldiering and joined the third Battery of the Canadian Field Artillery while in Montreal. At McGill, he organized the Officers Training Corps and carried the rank of Captain.
Capper's tenure at McGill lasted only seven years. In 1903 he returned to Britain to establish another new school, this time at Victoria University in Manchester which, by the way, was the fourth School of Architecture to be established at a university in the British Commonwealth, preceded only by those of the Universities of Toronto(1890) Liverpool (l894) and McGill (1896).
After his return to Britain, Professor Capper headed the Manchester School for nine years and commanded the Victoria University Officers Training Corps. He retired in 1912, after a serious riding accident followed by pneumonia. When the First World War broke out, Capper, who by this time held tie rank of Major, joined his battalion and went to Egypt. Being then in his fifties and declared unfit for active duty for reasons of health, he did not take part in the unsuccessful Gallipoli assault, but was assigned to desk duty as a military censor. After the war, he remained in Egypt and worked for the Ministry of the Interior at Cairo Where he died, unmarried, at the age of 66, leaving the residue of his estate for teachers' stipends of the Schools at McGill and Manchester.