John Plaw invents a New Georgian Style for P.E.I. – Our own Greek Revival

Interlude – the birth of the Greek Revival Style on PEI 

The evolution of Georgian architecture on the Island is unique in one startling way and I feel an enormous compulsion to interrupt my narrative on domestic buildings to explain how one original and beautiful method of joining the corners to the eaves originated and developed. We have seen examples of it in previous posts and it will appear in the ones that follow. Let us pause for a short while and contemplate this elegant invention and make it second nature in our perception.

As the colony of Prince Edward Island began to grow in the early Nineteenth Century, buildings of quality began to appear. Most consisted of a central plan structure because Neoclassicism, full of symmetry, was the style in Britain, and also because the very first Island settlers constructed log or frame houses with central chimneys which imposed a division in the centre of the house. As well, guidebooks on how to build in the country proliferated and were brought to the Island as early as 1765 when Samuel Holland did his famous survey. They recommended symmetry and classical ornament.

Tradition from the home country and advice in guidebooks were united in setting out how houses should be finished on the outside and inside as well. The advice given was based almost completely on classical trims or mouldings used in Ancient Greece and Rome and which had been revived in the Renaissance, becoming the standard for the next several centuries.

As we have seen in previous posts, the classical temple front contained all the forms and mouldings considered to be desirable.

Architectural styles are never static and in the late Eighteenth Century a taste for things Greek, not Roman, swept the world of design. Houses were made to look as much as possible as temples, like the 1839 Charles Connell home in Woodstock, NB.

Two sides of the house are covered with Doric colonnades, while the body of the house is kept tight with massive corner boards or pilasters. This was the Greek Revival style at its most dramatic that would last into the 1850s until it culminated with this 1854 courthouse in Liverpool, Nova Scotia. Its pure Greek Doric.

On PEI, it would be the pilasters, not the colonnades that would touch many houses through the vision of one man.

The two houses pictured above – one two-storied for a wealthy client and the other a single storey for a less prosperous person – are finished with the exact same architectural details: central plan, eaves based on classical models supported by corner pilasters that have all the qualities of a classical column. Even the door and window frames are miniature temples.

At first glance all these houses look like similar ones in other provinces and in New England. For the most part they are identical until you examine how the corner boards or pilasters are joined to the eaves. What you see is found nowhere else and will dominate building practices in the region of Charlottetown for a generation. Here, at West End house on West Street, is a perfect example of the corner eaves arrangement that appeared in Charlottetown early in the century.

Westend House, 1839-40, 18 West Street, Charlottetown.

How did this come to be?



In 1807, John Plaw (1745-1820), a fashionable London architect who promoted the Picturesque style of building, emigrated with his family to Prince Edward Island, where, except for trips to Nova Scotia, he would remain until his death in 1820. In architectural history Plaw is remembered for three elegant pattern books which were reprinted in facsimile in 1971 and ’72. They are, Rural Architecture; or Designs from the Simple Cottage to the Decorated Villa, Ferme Ornée or Rural Improvements and Sketches for Country Houses, Villas, and Rural Dwellings.

There is a well-known short list of buildings Plaw designed for Charlottetown including a proposal for a jail in 1809, a courthouse in 1810, an eccentric building for the English firm of Waters and Birnie, and a round market building for Queen’s Square in 1819. No list of his private commissions during his early years survives but it is not unreasonable to suppose that the wealthy and influential would have approached him not only for house plans but also for the articulation of small yet substantial estates within the Royalties and Common of Charlottetown. Plaw needed money, and easy work of this kind would have been vital in supporting his family. He did a considerable amount of surveying out in the country and produced two small maps of the city of Charlottetown.

It is to Plaw’s design for a courthouse to be built in Queen’s Square that we must turn our attention. He submitted two designs, and this is the one that was chosen.

Plaw, John, Elevation of the Courts of Justice & Houses of Assembly, 1810. PARO.


The courthouse was built in 1811, and in what seems like an electrifying moment, Plaw’s method of joining his pilasters to the eaves became for the next 40+ years the chief way to build this dramatic corner of the house.

This graphic shows the pilaster of the courthouse, a drawing by David Webber setting out the basics of the method, and a finished corner at 222 Sydney Street, Charlottetown.

What Plaw proposed and built was a panelled corner board that rose from a block base to the eaves. As soon as it met the soffit a flat bracket or modillion emerged and projected almost to the edge of the soffit board. Paired on a corner the effect was sublimely elegant in its utter simplicity.

Here is Plaw’s courthouse as it looked on the afternoon of August 15, 1862, by a Lieutenant Trotter of HMS Nile in port for a visit. Trotter played the tourist and took various views of Charlottetown. He was fascinated by the courthouse with its group of policemen, the town crier, and a boy sailor from the ship who had been allowed ashore.

Lieutenant Trotter, View of Queen’s Square, August 15 1862, stereoscopic pair detail, Trevor Gillingwater Collection

We see other architectural features on the courthouse that will appear again in structures built after 1811.

Plaw, who practised architecture around Charlottetown until his death in 1820, seems to have begun to use this corner arrangement on all the houses he built. One need only think of Spring Park and Belmont, contemporaries of the courthouse and most surely influenced by Plaw and his ideas for modillions in the corners of the eaves. A new style was replacing the old neoclassical architectural elements. That involved very wide panelled corner boards and was called the Greek Revival Style. I believe that what Plaw produced in his courthouse was quickly adopted as the Greek Revival on the Island, and was carried on into the 1840s by Isaac Smith. The mainland Greek Revival style did appear on the Island, but to my knowledge no good exemplars survive.


In 1817, with just three more years to live, Plaw was joined on the Island by a young man from North Yorkshire, called Isaac Smith (1795-1871). He came from the tiny village of Harome, near the market town of Helmsley, all part of the vast estate of Duncombe Park, now a converted Palladian mansion with countless acres of Picturesque gardens. It is probable that the Smith family were employed in various capacities to work on this great estate, with its house, outbuildings, archaeological sites and vast gardens, farms and forests. As a worker on this very early Palladian estate he would have learned not only skills in carpentry, cabinetmaking and even masonry, but he would have learned very thoroughly the language of Classical architecture.

Local architectural enthusiasts have always quibbled about how significant the three years Plaw and Smith could have interacted without arriving at any conclusion. I believe that they spoke the same language and that the ambitious and aggressive Smith milked everything he could out of the ailing Plaw and used it to form the basis from which he plunged into the career of builder in a colony desperate for guidance in architectural matters.


I do not believe that Smith was creative in the way Plaw was, but he was clever enough to continue using the eaves finish details that Plaw had developed and used on such houses as Spring Park and Belmont in the six years after the completion of the courthouse. When Plaw died in 1820 Isaac Smith became his architectural heir, and for the rest of his time on the Island, with his various builder colleagues, continued to finish off domestic structures with the Plaw corner. He even used it in 1834 on Government House. By that time it had been in use for over 20 years and was the only generally used Greek Revival Style on the Island.

Reconstruction of Government House by David Webber, based on Reg Porter’s research. Ink and watercolour.

All that, of course, was stripped away when Government House was shingled and painted to provide a fresh clean look for the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1860. Only one side of the south servants’ wing preserves the original cladding and pilaster, and the modillion is missing. But in other parts of the city, even today, the modillion soffit arrangement is there to greet you in the most unexpected places.


At Ravenwood, the former Experimental Farm built around 1820-28, the pilasters are so arrogantly exuberant as to double themselves, producing cornice mouldings of the greatest intricacy.

Ravenwood House, 1820-28, Charlottetown Royalty.

And what of Plaw? He rests, with his wife, in the Elm Avenue Cemetery on University Avenue, on the right, near the back… It is a place of annual pilgrimage for me where I sit on the grass, and contemplate, at the feet of the master, the restrained and sublime skill of John Plaw, the father of our regionally unique Greek Revival Style, that through the 1830-’40 period dominated all other styles.