Foundations of Construction: Sturdy steel skeleton and delicate stained glass windows

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pigott building
“Three of the spectacular stained glass windows featuring construction workers, made by William Meikle of Robert McCausland Limited for the Pigott Building, Hamilton’s first skyscraper.” Photographer Nhl4hamilton/Wikimedia Commons.

By Susanna McLeod

Special to Ontario Construction News

Regarded as one of Ontario’s first skyscrapers, the state-of-the-art Pigott Building was completed in 1929, transforming the skyline of Hamilton. The 18-storey architecture confirmed Pigott Construction Company Ltd.’s reputation as an industry leader. At the same time, company president J.M. Pigott ensured ongoing skill development for construction workers through apprenticeships.

When he was 18 years old, Joseph Michael Pigott (b. February 23, 1885) joined his father’s construction company in 1903. With an aptitude for the industry, the young man absorbed all the finer details of operating the business. Six years later, Pigott and his younger brother, Royal Bernard Pigott (b. October 1887), travelled to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, “where they secured a large contract to build St. Paul’s Hospital,” said J.M. Pigott Fonds at McMaster University. The next year, Joseph Pigott took over company operations from his father.

While handling daily life and an interruption for war duty, the brothers concentrated on building Pigott Construction into a force to be reckoned with. (Royal served as lieutenant with the Canadian Expeditionary Force during World War One). Their efforts paid off handsomely with the company earning $1 million in 1926. It was time for a building that represented Pigott’s growth, status, and prosperity.

Designed by architects Prack & Prack in Modern Gothic Revival and Art Deco styles, construction of the 64-metre-tall structure in downtown Hamilton began in 1928. The industrialist was an early adopter of new technology. Incorporating a steel skeleton into his prestigious building, Pigott followed the success of American industry to build fire-resistant towers. Smaller footprints in tight urban areas meant skyward expansion.

Keeping with historical grace, the masonry exterior of the Pigott Building featured “pointed windows, decorative hood moldings, ornamental label stops, and a rib vault above the front entrance,” described Dr. Barry Magrill in Raise the Hammer. Composed of two sections, “both towers rise rapidly through the middle section without set-back until the upper floors are reached, maximizing the floorplate during the embryonic stages of city planning and minimal restrictions to skyscrapers.”

Appointed with fine woodwork, the building’s interior was eye-catching with rich brass fixtures, delicate scrollwork, and a revolving door. Two elevators and an elevator-operator whisked people to their destinations, and searchlights were installed on the roof to attract attention.

The marble foyer was enhanced by dramatic windows, about 1.22 m in height by 60 m wide, fitted with handcrafted stained glass in brilliant colours. Requested by Pigott, the windows were designed and created by William Meikle of Toronto’s Robert McCausland Limited. Honouring construction workers, the extraordinary artwork ranged from architects to masons, to carpenters and more.

Investing an extravagant $1 million, the grand Pigott Building opened with celebration in 1929. The music stopped in November that year when the Stock Market Crash shook the business world. The construction company survived the steep downturn. Filled with professional tenants, the commercial building housed legal offices, physicians, architects, and others. And it was Pigott Construction Company’s elegant head office.

Influential clients brought massive projects to Pigott’s skilled team, including Westdale Secondary School in Toronto. Opened in 1931, it was considered the largest composite school in the British Empire; the Bank of Canada building was completed in Ottawa in 1938. Each success brought more clients.

“After the Second World War Pigott Construction was Canada’s largest privately-owned construction company amassing more than $113,000,000 in business in a single year,” stated McMaster University. The firm thrived, building “some of Canada’s largest industrial plants and finest buildings… Banks of Nova Scotia, Royal and Montreal, McMaster University, the County Court House,” plus Hamilton City Hall, and a roster of many more.

At completion of the Cathedral of Christ the King, Joseph Pigott was honoured by Pope Pius XI with a Knight Commander of the Order of St. Gregory the Great. Among several recognitions, Pigott was awarded Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1946 for his services with the government’s Wartime Housing Limited, and with an honorary degree from McMaster University in 1963.

Pigott used his position as industry professional to advocate “for training programs for workers, financed by the government,” said Hamilton Public Library, “and for 32 years was chairman of the industrial Apprenticeship Advisory Committee.” Newspaper advertisements promoted the trades, stating, “Pigott, where construction is a career.”

Designated “a property of historic and architectural significance” in 1984, the Pigott Building left company hands. Precious decorative pieces were sold and disappeared, including the beautiful stained glass windows. Eventually, the windows were found and purchased. Repaired, they were re-installed in 1990. Renovated, the Pigott Building is now a residential condominium complex.

On his 1909 Saskatchewan trip, Joseph Pigott met and married Yvonne Prince. The construction firm was a family affair, with the president’s team including four of his six sons. Joseph Pigott died on April 20, 1968, his mark visible throughout Hamilton and Canada.

© 2022 Susanna McLeod. McLeod is a Kingston-based freelance writer who specializes in Canadian History.

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