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Benjamin Woolfield Mountfort

Benjamin Woolfield Mountfort was one of New Zealand’s most pre-eminent architects in the nineteenth century. He designed many important public buildings in Christchurch and was responsible for the adoption of the Gothic Revival style which characterised the city. This page gives background information on his life and works.

British beginnings

Mountfort was born on 13 March 1825. He grew up in Birmingham, England, and studied architecture with Richard Cromwell Carpenter. Carpenter was an important member of the Gothic Revival movement and was a strong influence on Mountfort’s architectural style.

Arriving in Canterbury

On 20 August 1850, Mountfort married Emily Newman. He travelled with his new wife on board the Charlotte Jane to Canterbury, arriving on 16 December 1850.

His first design in New Zealand was for the Church of the Most Holy Trinity in Lyttelton. Unfortunately, unseasoned (not fully dried) timber was used, and after strong winds had buffeted it, it was decided that the church was not safe and it was demolished in 1857. This incident did not help Mountfort’s career at first, although it was his knowledge of local timber and conditions that was the problem, not his skill as an architect. Until 1859 he ran a bookshop and worked as a drawing teacher. In that time he designed two more churches.

Architect to the province of Canterbury

By 1857 Mountfort and his partner and brother-in-law, Isaac Luck, had become architects to the province of Canterbury. Together they designed the new Canterbury Provincial Council Buildings, built between 1858-1865. The stone chamber (built in 1865) is thought of as the most important example of Mountfort’s work.

Gothic Revival

A style of architecture popular in the nineteenth century. It was based on a return to the medieval look of pointed arches, steeply pitched roofs with gables, spires and other decoration. It was supposed to combine usefulness with design, with no additions such as windows, unless they were really needed, rather than just for the look of the building. It was regarded as the best architectural style for English colonies where there was no strong local architecture, and where the English Church was to have an important influence.

When the construction of ChristChurch Cathedral began in 1863, the English architect, George Gilbert Scott, recommended Mountfort for the job of supervising architect (looking after the day-to-day work on the building site). The Cathedral Commission insisted on an architect from England instead. After the building had been delayed because of money problems, Mountfort was made supervising architect when work finally started again in 1873.

New Zealand’s leading church architect

Other buildings designed by Mountfort were the Canterbury Museum (1869-1882), Canterbury College (now the Arts Centre), which included the clock-tower block (1877) and the Great Hall (1882). Nowhere else in New Zealand has there been a collection of public buildings in the Gothic Revival style.

He was elected president of the Canterbury Association of Architects when it was formed in 1872. By the 1880s Mountfort was recognised as the country’s leading church architect, with the design of over forty churches to his name.

Benjamin Mountfort died on 15 March 1898, in Christchurch.

Status of Mountfort’s buildings post-quakes

Several of the buildings designed by Mountfort were damaged in the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011. The status of some of his most well-known buildings is listed below:

Information about Mountfort-designed buildings belonging to the Christchurch City Council can be found in its Facilities Rebuild Plan.

Sources

Find out more about Mountfort and the Gothic Revival

In our catalogueCover image: A dream of Spires

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