Ask anyone who has come to love Bermuda about their first impression of the island and they will likely tell you it was that view out the airplane window on final approach: an azure sea wrapping a verdant island dotted with white-roofed and pastel-walled cottages. The ensuing taxi ride confirmed that they had arrived in a land of unique architecture—pretty homes crafted of coral stone cut out of local quarries—graced with whitewashed roofs, welcoming arms, top-hinged jalousies and trimmed with local cedar.
This architectural charm has long been praised. In the 1880s, American poet Julia Dorr recorded her reaction: “All the houses are built of the native snow-white stone, a coral formation that underlies every foot of soil…He who wishes to build him a house has but to scrape off a foot or two of the red surface soil, and lo! There lies his building material ready to his hand, or rather to his saw.” Mark Twain marvelled at “those snowy houses, half-concealed and half-glimpsed through green foliage” with roofs like “the white of the icing of a cake.” And, as Godey’s Magazine noted in 1894, each of these “white, trim houses” quaintly bore a distinctive name, “…Rose Banks, Eden Cottage…” The twentieth century brought better paint and varied hues to the palette of Bermuda architecture. William Dean Howells, editor of The Atlantic Monthly, marvelled at the “saffron pink, and pale blue; and everywhere, snow-white roofs.” Indeed, Bermuda’s architecture has often prompted fulsome description. American historian Hudson Strode rhapsodised in 1936: “From the deck of a steamer approaching the islands, one gets the impression that fistfuls of giant wedding cake have been hurled higgledy-piggledy into the dark verdure of the cedars.”
Architecturally, Bermuda provides a shining example of vernacular design—design that emerges organically out of intrinsic materials and needs. Water, for instance, is precious in Bermuda. Hence, Bermuda homes evolved their own ecosystems, capturing water on their whitewashed roofs and storing it in cisterns created by the excavation of the stone used to construct the home. Hurricanes taught Bermudians to cant their roofs and seal them with whale oil to weather destructive gales. Curving eyebrows were placed above windows high on exterior walls to deflect rain. Adjacent butteries were built to provide ventilated coolers for perishable food. Chimneys were tented with “praying hands” to enhance the evacuation of smoke. Inside, sturdy local cedar was used to support high tray ceilings. In short, the Bermuda cottage was the outcome of an on-going evolution uniquely tailored to the island’s needs and means.
Bermuda’s burgeoning tourist trade in the twentieth century threatened this delicate equilibrium. Tourism brought prosperity and new methods and materials of construction. In 1913, the Canadian artist John Lyman arrived to regain his health on the “isles of rest.” He filled his days compiling an inventory of island homes reflecting what he lovingly called “the old Bermudas.” He concluded his labour, however, on a sour note: Bermuda’s “bred-in-the-bone tradition” of design was being overwhelmed by “cosmopolitan Portland cement—that Frankenstein of existing styles.” Ten years later, Harvard architecture professor John Humphreys repeated this warning in his book Bermuda Houses. He praised the “unity, charm and simplicity” of Bermuda homes as “the unaffected expression and natural outcome” of the local environment. Sadly, he concluded, Bermuda homes were becoming “ruthlessly modernised” and tainted by an alien “suburban villa style.” As if to confirm his opinion, the Furness Withy shipping company opened the huge Bermudiana Hotel on the Hamilton waterfront in 1924. Designed by New York architects Warren and Wetmore, the bulky, multi-storey hotel proved an engine of tourism profits, but at the cost of abusing the grace of the existing vernacular. Bermuda thus entered the twentieth century facing an architectural dilemma: how to preserve traditional design while accommodating Bermudians’ growing appetite for modern ways.
Into this era of transformation came the man who would almost single-handedly revive Bermuda’s home-grown architecture. On September 29, 1908, Wilfred Richmond Onions was born at Mangrove Bay in Somerset. His father, Henry, was a haberdasher in Somerset Village. His mother, Mary, was Scottish born, the first hint of a Scottish influence that would persist through Wilfred’s life. Three sisters—Edith, Hilda and Frances—rounded out the family. In 1915, Henry moved the family to Myrtle Grove on Long Bay Road. The kitchen of the new home dated back to the late eighteenth century, but the main house originated in the 1840s and had seen its Bermudian allure dimmed from neglect and the addition of an ungainly verandah. Onions senior changed its name to Aberfeldy, after his wife’s birthplace in the Scottish highlands.
We have no intimate record of Wil’s youngest years, but there are hints of his embryonic passions. His parents sent him to Bermuda High School and then Saltus Grammar School. At BHS, he won a first-form prize for English, nature study and writing. In 1924, his artistic bent garnered seven prizes for his arrangement of “children’s flowers” at the Sandys Flower Show. Wil also took an early interest in the theatre, as a set designer with Somerset’s Harem Scarem players. Following the troupe’s autumn 1925 show, the Royal Gazette saluted his behind-the-scenes work, noting that “the stage was a model of order.”
By the spring of 1926, Onions was being prepped for college entrance at Saltus. His ambition settled on the study of architecture, and Canada beckoned. Bermuda and Canada had long been bound by myriad religious, military, social and educational ties. Canada had three architecture schools affiliated with universities in Toronto, Winnipeg and Montreal. Onions settled on Montreal’s McGill and despatched a bundle of his Bermuda sketches in support of his successful application. That fall he departed on the S.S. Fort St. George for New York, and on September 23 registered at McGill’s School of Architecture. He took a room at the nearby YMCA and plunged into the world of professional training. In yearbook pictures portraying his small, all-male class, Wil has already donned the uniform of a young professional: dark suit, waistcoat, brilliantined hair and eager demeanour. The young lad from Somerset stood on the threshold of a new world.
Onions arrived in Montreal as it, like Bermuda, was grappling with change. With a population of nearly three-quarters of a million, Montreal was then Canada’s largest city, the epicentre of its commerce, finance and artistic life. It also stood at the fulcrum of Canada’s English-French cultural diversity. There could be no denying, however, that corporate and political power lay in the hands of the city’s Anglophone minority. Amidst this dominance, the Scottish fact was undeniable. Indeed, McGill University found its initial 1813 endowment in the fur-trade fortune of James McGill, a Scot who venerated the Scottish Enlightenment with its emphasis on useful knowledge. Scots like to quip that they “invented the world.” There was much truth in this on the shores of the St. Lawrence River. Canada’s banks, railways and manufacturing were powerfully fueled by Gaelic enterprise and networking.
The same was true when McGill launched its School of Architecture in 1896. The school’s first three directors were all Scots: Stewart Henbest Capper (1896–1903), Percy Nobbs (1903–10) and Ramsay Traquair (1913–39). Each arrived in Montreal steeped in the ethos of European architecture. Capper had spent time at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Nobbs had been raised amid the grandeur of St. Petersburg, Russia, educated at the University of Edinburgh and imbued with the ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement, with its celebration of craftsmanship over mass production. A man of many talents, Nobbs won a silver medal in fencing at the 1908 Olympics. Traquair studied under Capper at the Edinburgh College of Art. Although he never acquired a formal degree in architecture, Traquair veered toward the teaching of architecture rather than its practice. He wandered Europe, studying Byzantine churches for the Turkish government and working for the British School of Archaeology in Athens. In this, he displayed a passion for meticulously cataloguing the glories of past architecture. “Traq” acquired a reputation as an eloquent prophet of his profession. After a brief stint in private practice, he was tapped by the Scottish old-boys’ network to be Nobbs’s successor in Montreal.
Capper, Nobbs and Traquair carried similar intellectual baggage to Montreal. In the words of art historian Isabelle Gournay, they exemplified “the Scottish ideal of the architect as scholar, historian, and polemicist. Their liberal arts backgrounds acquired at the University of Edinburgh endowed them with the articulate and inquisitive spirit suited for criticism and the pursuit of reform.” And what they found in Montreal invited much reform. A young polyglot country, Canada lacked architecture of its own making. Canadians embraced the security of derivative design. The temple-like banks along St. James Street—Canada’s Wall Street—were designed by foreign architects, who strived to make Montreal a Manhattan of the north. On his arrival in 1926, Wil Onions would have stared upward at the monumentality of the Sun Life Building on Dominion Square, the work of American architects Darling, Pearson and Cleveland. Two years later, York and Sawyer of New York would deliver the tallest building in the British Empire to the Royal Bank of Canada. Montreal’s merchant princes lived in an enclave on the side of Mount Royal dubbed “the Square Mile.” There, palatial homes sported a mishmash of imported styles—Italianate, Beaux-Arts, Second Empire and even faux Scottish castles. The city’s preeminent home-grown architects, William and Edward Maxwell, specialised in designing chateau-style railway hotels, which, like the Bermudiana, put Canada on the tourist map.
Nobbs and Traquair were not oblivious to the demands of progress. Each year they took their students on tours of the latest triumphs of modern architecture: the Royal Bank head office, a pulp and paper mill, and the art deco restaurant of the Eaton’s department store were favourite destinations. But in their lectures they professed that something seemed to be missing—something genuinely Canadian. They soon found it outside the imported design of Montreal’s downtown precinct. While many English-Canadians dismissed Québec as “backward,” McGill’s architecture professors saw something intrinsically beautiful in the buildings of “old” Montreal and its adjacent countryside. Here were homes that reflected local materials and local needs. Habitant farmers utilised local lumber and stone to construct steep-roofed homes with prominent dormers and long verandahs to shed snow in the winter and provide shade in the summer. Soon after his arrival at McGill in 1903, Percy Nobbs began sending his students on sketching outings on which they made “measured” (that is, meticulously dimensioned) drawings of old Catholic churches, farm houses and colonial structures dating back to the French regime in Quebec, an era that had abruptly ended with the English conquest of 1763. “I became instrumental in interesting the profession and the general public,” Nobbs later wrote, “in the sterling qualities of the old architecture of Quebec.”
When he assumed the school’s directorship in 1913, Ramsay Traquair perpetuated Nobb’s quest for the authentic. In his lectures, he attacked “plodding official architecture” with its “cheesebox columns,” extolling instead the idea that buildings were not “machines for living,” as the great Swiss architect Le Corbusier believed, but were instead “organisms for living in.” Good architecture must “bend with the traditions of air, race, the requirements of climate and of life to form a local and definitely provincial style.” To buttress his contention, Traquair assembled a huge inventory of sketches and photographs of the homes, furniture, silverware and ornamentation of Old Quebec. In this endeavour, McGill architecture students were conscripted as foot soldiers. In his 1926 publication The Cottages of Quebec, Traquair declared his clarion creed: “These old cottages of Quebec are one of the few genuine vernacular styles of North America…They form a true natural style.”
Into this world stepped Wil Onions. Things, however, did not initially go well. We can only guess why. Perhaps the seismic shift in his daily life unsettled him? Perhaps homesickness? Perhaps his Cambridge Certificate grounding in Bermuda was inadequate? Whatever the cause, he failed most of his first-year courses in 1926–27, showing promise only in architectural drawing. First year would have to be repeated. The setback had another implication. A classmate, Valmer Dudley Bouchard, a Scottish-Canadian lad from the nearby industrial town of Sherbrooke, whom he had befriended that first year, excelled where Onions stumbled and proceeded to second year. The friendship, however, endured and would prove the kernel of great things to come.
That second year, Onions found his pace. He displayed real talent in architectural drawing and geometry, so much so that in 1929 he won a prize for his drawing skills. Each September he spent two weeks at Traquair’s sketching school. His meticulous measured drawings of heritage buildings such as the Chateau de Ramezay, the 1705 home of a colonial governor, and the Ferme St. Gabriel, a 1688 residence for les filles de roi (young marriageable girls brought to the colony), still reside in the McGill University Archives, each neatly signed “W.R.O.” in the bottom corner. Onions’s own, well-worn sketchbook, capturing the fine detail of these buildings, is there as well. Traquair punctuated the students’ year with guest lectures. In 1931, Professor Philip Turner spoke on “Old English Cottages and Village Inns,” a talk designed to expose his young protégés to the English Revival movement’s rediscovery of architecture rooted in locale. By 1932, Onions was secretary of the McGill Architecture Society, standing proudly behind “Traq” in the yearbook portrait.
Onions’s professional grooming culminated in his 1932 graduation, when excellent grades in design, drawing and essay writing brought a Lieutenant-Governor’s Silver Medal for Professional Practice and a share of the Hugh McLennan Memorial Travelling Scholarship. The McLennan, named for a young Square Mile Montrealer who perished in the Great War after studying at the Beaux-Arts in Paris, opened Europe to Onions. In the spring of 1933, he set off on a nine-month exploration of the new and the old of European architecture. In Berlin, he marvelled at the bold modernism of Walter Gropius and the steel, glass and concrete leanness of his Bauhaus School. In Amsterdam, he sketched the tightly packed townhouses of Hendrik Jacobszstraat adjacent to the city’s famed North Canal. From his base in London, he ventured out to visit the Arts and Crafts country homes designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, homes that drew inspiration from the Tudor style. Lutyens had appropriately designed the London offices of Country Life magazine. But it was Scandinavian design that most piqued Onions’s curiosity. There he encountered the “national romantic” style, a style that addressed a fundamental dilemma for many twentieth-century architects: how to create a style that respected traditional materials and aesthetics while at the same time meeting the demands of a modern urban-industrial society?
In the hands of Nordic architects, national romanticism drew inspiration from medieval times. In Stockholm, that need was for a new city hall, one that would centre the city’s identity while fulfilling a crucial municipal function. Designed by Ragnar Östberg (1866–1945) and finished in 1923, the Stockholm City Hall’s austere tall tower echoed the waterfront piazzas of Venice, while its use of dark red brick hinted of old Swedish churches and monasteries. The organic nature of the massive building clearly mesmerised Onions. He made watercolour sketches of it. The building became an abiding motif for Onions, eventually resurfacing in his design for Hamilton City Hall. For instance, the imposing tower on each building sports a distinctive wind vane: three gold Swedish crowns in Stockholm and a ship in full sail in Hamilton. Across the Baltic in Helsinki, Onions found further inspiration in Eliel Saarinen’s (1873–1950) design of the Helsinki Central Station with its bold tower and curved main entrance flanked by four massive figures, each bearing an illuminated globe. To this day, the Helsinki station is regarded as one the world’s most beautiful; the Blue Hall in the Stockholm City Hall is used for the annual Nobel awards dinner.
On November 20, 1933, Wil Onions came home to Bermuda, his luggage packed with European sketchbooks and his mind now committed to his métier. His arrival made the front page of the Royal Gazette: “Bermudian Gains Distinction in England, Wilfred Onions Returns After Study in Europe.” The story however got things a bit wrong. Onions, it said, had busied himself in Europe studying the “modern form of architecture.” His inspiration would in fact not come from Gropius and Le Corbusier, but instead from the English and Continental revivalists who strove to make the old new again. In an essay he wrote on his travels, he expressed his ambition “to design new work imbued with the spirit of the old.” Architecture was a process of “gradual evolution,” not abrupt change.
Even before his homecoming Onions had hinted at his aesthetic direction. In 1928, while still a student, he had designed a small cottage, Coral Chimneys, on Point Finger Road for his sister Hilda. It was a liveable home for a modern couple, but its twin chimneys, and Flemish gabled entrance set it squarely in Bermuda’s vernacular tradition. As if to confirm this vision, Onions painted the scenery for the Bermuda Historical Society’s 1934 spring charity ball. The Royal Gazette praised his depiction of Bermuda’s evolution: “…it demonstrated very clearly to all present that ‘Old Bermuda’ had charms far beyond those belonging to a ‘Modern Bermuda.’” The same allure saw Onions, aided by his sisters Hilda and Frances, compile a Traquair-inspired inventory of old Bermuda homes. With his sisters holding the plumb line, he measured the dimensions and sketched the facades not only of Somerset homes such as Springfield but also of larger buildings further afield such as St. Mary’s Anglican Church and the General Post Office Building (now Magistrates’ Court) in Hamilton.
Wil initially took employment with Lawrence Smart, a specialist in church design. In this role, he oversaw the design of new cedar panelling for St. Mary’s Church, work the Royal Gazette said did him “great credit.” Like most new professionals, Onions was determined to strike out on his own. In 1936, he and his old buddy from McGill, Val Bouchard (whom he had brought to Bermuda on holiday in 1932), formed the firm of Onions and Bouchard. A great creative partnership was thus formed, one that over the years would leave an indelible mark on the landscape of Bermuda. In 1948, for instance, Onions contributed to Bermuda’s post-war housing effort by contributing to a book on cottage designs published by the Historical Monuments Trust dedicated to preserving “the arts and crafts of the Colonists as they have developed during the Island’s history.” In the same spirit, Onions renovated his family home, Aberfeldy, aligning it with the spirit of old Bermuda design.
To this day, Onions’s name echoes through the built heritage of Bermuda. Real estate advertisements foreground the phrase “classic Wil Onions’s design.” The magisterial volumes of the National Trust’s series chronicling Bermuda’s architectural heritage are punctuated with praise for Onions: his 1951 But ’n’ Ben cottage in Tucker’s Town is “a fine example of his genius for marrying modern living requirements with the spirit, proportion and beauty of 18th century Bermudian architecture.” And Onions and Bouchard has evolved into OBMI, a globe-straddling architectural firm famed for its prowess in designing structures rooted in their immediate environment. (See https:www.obmi.com.)
Wil Onions is an underappreciated national hero. His architectural legacy is widely venerated, but his inner impulses and humanity have yet to be fully explored. Onions’s life was not just a simple crescendo of brilliant organic design. Turmoil often seemed to lurk just below the surface. In an archly conservative society such as mid-twentieth-century Bermuda, Onions is rumoured to have carefully masked a gay sexuality. His attempt to scale-up vernacular design into a massive Hamilton city hall à la Stockholm in the late 1950s wracked his abilities. At the same time, he battled with a recalcitrant client, the American crime writer C. Daly King, over the design of his Somerset home, Per Ketit. Daly insisted on alien materials and non-Bermudian features which Onions regarded as a betrayal of his life’s dedication to a local aesthetic. We have no certainty about the inner turmoil these tensions may have fermented. Sadly, we do know that in July 1959 one of Bermuda’s most creative minds took his own life. It is time we came to understand not just the making of Wil Onions as an architect, but also the joys and torments of a genius caught in the currents of life.
Dr Duncan McDowall is University Historian at Queen’s University in Canada and writes frequently on Bermuda history and heritage. With thanks to the McGill University Archives.