The building was designed by noted architects Wright & Sanders in the Romanesque Revival style, a style favoured, during the nineteenth century, as an appropriate expression of Jewish culture and spirituality, and reputedly modelled on synagogues in New York City and in Poland. This was the first architect‐designed brick religious building in the city and demonstrates the community’s commitment to both its place of worship and to the establishment of a permanent community in Victoria.
Synagogue Emanu‐El is one of the primary surviving works of the long‐term partnership of Wright & Sanders. John Wright arrived in Victoria in 1858, and entered into a partnership with George H. Sanders, who moved to Victoria in 1861. Together, Wright & Sanders soaked up the major governmental, institutional, commercial and domestic commissions in the two west coast colonies. Despite their success in British Columbia, they sought a brighter future in northern California. Then followed a brilliant thirty‐year career covering San Francisco’s boom years during which the Wright & Sanders partnership produced a stream of large and prestigious buildings for the Bay area. Sadly, the majority of their work was destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. It is therefore with some irony that Wright & Sanders’s largest architectural legacy is their surviving early work in Victoria.
Wright was born on May 15, 1830 at Killearn, Scotland, a small village near Loch Lomond. His parents died when he was a young child, leaving him to be raised by his grandparents and unmarried aunts. He immigrated to Guelph, Ontario in 1845 to live with cousins, and there he learned carpentry and engineering. There are references to John Wright as a builder and contractor in Guelph, and from 1856‐58 he acted as Inspector of Works on the new city hall designed by William Thomas. This may have constituted the major part of Wright’s architectural training. In 1858, Wright married Agnes Scott Armstrong, who bore him a large family of ten children. Wright correctly gauged that, as gold fever and the consequent expanding economy filled the city with transient workers, its shacks and shelters were bound to be replaced with more permanent structures. On June 24, 1859 he called for tenders for the construction of his first known commission in Victoria, the Wesleyan Methodist Church, a Gothic structure with a one hundred and twenty foot tower.
In 1860, Wright formed a partnership with George Sanders, who was born in Canada on August 2, 1838 after his family emigrated from England. Wright seems to have acted as the firm’s chief designer, and remained more in the public eye. Sanders likely handled most of the business aspects and management of the firm. The partnership was immediately successful, and lasted until Wright’s retirement in 1895. In addition to their work on Vancouver Island, Wright and the firm received a number of commissions in the mainland colony, especially New Westminster, between 1860 and 1866.
Various strains of Wright’s eclectic stylistic palette were evident in major commissions over the next few years. For the First Presbyterian congregation in Victoria, Wright, who was a trustee, designed a wood frame Gothic church. The cornerstone was laid 9 April 1863, and the church opened its doors for divine service just seven months later. The Jewish synagogue, Emanu‐El, was a substantial and sophisticated essay in the Romanesque Revival, also built in 1863. One of the firm’s last projects before leaving Victoria was Angela College for the Anglican Diocese. Although only partially built, the published scheme was a sophisticated red‐brick collegiate Gothic essay that showed full awareness of the latest trends in the English Gothic Revival movement. Well‐placed civil servants and wealthy businessmen commissioned Wright’s architectural skills, and the firm also designed a steady stream of fine residences for Victoria’s elite. Wright & Sanders designed an Italianate villa Woodlands in James Bay, c.1861, for ex‐Hudson’s Bay Company official, James Bissett, and the original wing of Point Ellice House, c.1862. Residential work in this style was to reach its apogee in the Richard Carr house of 1863‐64.
In 1866, Wright visited San Francisco for the first time. He noted the incredible growth in the Bay area, and in particular the coming of the American transcontinental railroad, scheduled for completion by 1869. In late 1866, Wright and his large family, and Sanders, moved to San Francisco. It proved a canny business decision to relocate their architectural practice. Wright & Sanders were immediately successful in obtaining large commercial and institutional commissions, and rapidly became leaders in the local architectural profession. The Wright & Sanders office remained open until 1900, when Wright retired, and then Sanders advertised himself as being in independent practice in 1901. John Wright watched as much of his life’s work was consumed in the fires that followed the great San Francisco earthquake, or was dynamited to stop the spread of conflagration. In the summer of 1915 Wright decided to visit Canada again. He became ill while crossing from Seattle to Victoria where he intended to meet friends en route to Ontario. He died in the Jubilee Hospital on 23 August 1915. George Sanders died on January 24, 1920 at the age of eighty‐one.
Of Wright & Sanders’s California work, only a few early churches survive, along with the Lick Observatory, built in the 1880s on Mount Hamilton in the Diablo Range east of San Jose, and the recently‐restored San Francisco Theological Seminary. In Victoria, a number of Wright & Sanders’s buildings form the core of the City’s protected architectural heritage. Richard Carr House and Synagogue Emanu‐El are national historic sites. Carr and Point Ellice houses are operated as provincial heritage attractions. Woodlands, Angela College, and Fairfield are municipally designated heritage sites. The early work of Wright & Sanders in Victoria was a strong and convincing demonstration of the architectural talent that would mature and flourish after their departure for California.
By the Act of the Colonial Legislature, Congregation Emanu‐El of Victoria was incorporated on 7 July 1864. “The Emanu‐El of Victoria, Vancouver Island,” was passed by “The Governor, on Her Majesty’s behalf, by and with the consent and advice of the Legislature Council and Assembly of Vancouver Island,” with the object of “carrying into effect the fulfillment of the Ordinances of the Israelitish persuasion according to the orthodox order.”