Phases of Development – Part One {1880-1930}


A sketch of Montréal from Mount Royal, looking Northeast, with Parc Avenue and Fletcher’s Field in the foreground

Given the expected transformation of the urban core over the next five years, I thought it might be neat to take a look at other broad phases of urban development in our city’s history, to see if we can establish some common threads over multiple generations in an effort to better determine what Montrealer’s look for in city design, what endures and retains an on-going air of sophistication. I figure that which survives is indicative of what our society sees as an ideal, and can thus serve as guide for development moving forward.

So let’s go back to the period 1880-1930. This is a crucial era in human history and constitutes the first era of modern development of our city. If we could visit this era we’d find that though life would no doubt be different in many ways, it wouldn’t be alien to us, and the pace and offerings of urban life may very well be quite relatable. Any further back in time and I feel life could no longer be described in modern terms. Consider that radio, telephones, airplanes, automobiles, long-distance telegraphy, transoceanic cables, cinema, mass transit, ecological conservation, urban preservation, city beautification and public hygiene all truly came of age in our city during this period. Modern conveniences and public expectations of the municipal government took form in this time to a degree we’d find acceptable and available communications and transport capabilities allowed both to be comparatively quick and efficient. Granted there were no satellites nor the Internet, no smartphones nor Métro, but we had systems in place that would ultimately serve to birth these technologies later and occupy their place back then. And given that Montréal was Canada’s economic metropolis at the time, we got to try these technologies early on, and then develop them according to our needs first and foremost.


View of Montréal from the roof of the Windsor Hotel (circa 1878), looking towards Griffintown & Victoria Bridge

The city of 1880 had a population of roughly 140,000 people and by 1930 this number would grow to 818,000 with a total of over a million living on-island. The city in 1880 would have been very compact, not extending much further than current Ville-Marie borough. Between 1880 and 1930, Montréal acquired the following communities through voluntary annexation: Hochelaga (the Ho in HoMa), Saint-Jean-Baptiste (part of the Plateau), Saint-Gabriel (part of Point-St-Charles), Cote St-Louis (again, part of today’s Plateau), Villeray, Saint-Henri, Sainte-Cunégonde (Little Burgundy/Atwater Market area), Notre-Dame-des-Neiges (part of CDN), de Lorimier and Saint-Louis (north-east & Parc-Ex respectively), Rosemont, Ahuntsic, Cote-des-Neiges, Longue-Pointe & Tetraultville (Eastern East End), Bordeaux (in today’s Saint-Laurent), Saint-Paul & Ville-Emard (today’s Sud-Ouest Borough), Notre-Dame-de-Grace, Sault-aux-Recollets (northernmost part of Saint-Laurent Blvd.), Cartierville (between Ahuntsic and Saint-LaurentSaint-Laurent) and Maisonneuve (the Ma in HoMa). Then, we stopped all annexations for over thirty years.


McGill and Saint James Street, way back in the day…

During this fifty year period Montréal expanded its residential tax base to eventually reach the 800,000 population mark in the early 1930s, all the while building its first skyscrapers and transforming the urban centre into the transportation, communication and commerce hub it is today. Large areas were specifically purposed for medium-density residential housing, and it is during this era that a vast majority of Montréal’s current urban housing was built. The venerable and iconic duplexes and triplexes were primarily built during this time, as many of our celebrated and prestigious parks came to be, such as Mount Royal Park (1876), Parc LaFontaine (1874), Dominion Square (1876), Maisonneuve Park (1910), the Montreal Botanical Gardens (1931), Parc Jeanne-Mance (1880s) and Parc Jean-Drapeau’s predecessor, first used by the public in 1874. This era effectively birthed what we know today as the City of Montréal’s urban core and first-ring suburbs, with the obvious exceptions of Westmount and the Town of Mount Royal. The Montréal of tourists and business, universities and super-hospitals, landmarks and institutions, attractions and festivals, all takes place in this area and has since that time. Land usage is high in this sector, density is high to medium for the most part, and the majority of citizens live in this area established up to 1930. In this respect, not much has changed from how and where Montrealers live their urban lives in over eighty years.

Curiously, Ville-Marie borough has been de-populated since 1930, owing primarily to slum clearance initiatives in the 1950s and 1960s, not to mention the construction of massive office towers and re-purposing of land for parking lots up into the 1980s. This trend is beginning to turn around with the many new residential condo towers promised under the Tremblay administration, in addition to the many repurposed 19th century industrial properties in the urban core. That said, the population of Ville-Marie borough is currently only at 78,000 people.


Rue de la Commune, early 1900s

The city back then was completely and thoroughly focused on the port and railway networks which define the borders of today’s Vieux-Montréal and Vieux-Port de Montréal areas. Saint-Hubert airport, the city’s first, would not begin operations until 1930, and it wasn’t until the 1960s that commercial air travel became affordable for most citizens. As such, a considerable amount of commercial, corporate and industrial activity would have taken place in a comparatively small area where proximity – between work, play and rest, the port, canal and the outlying train stations – would have been crucial. Consider things aren’t so different amongst the expectations of today’s urban citizens, and this is chiefly responsible for the city’s success at steady repopulation over the last decade.

Rue de la Commune, far from being the quaint Old World tourist promenade it is today, would back then have been a primary location for wholesale and warehousing activities, not to mention all commerce and regulation pertaining to our vital port operations. It was in every sense a massive market, as it had been for a hundred years prior, and was a dangerous and somewhat sinful part of town at certain times in the day. In fact, the entire area currently known as the Quais du Vieux-Port tourist area was back then a series of grain elevators and cold storage facilities, all very much in operation well into the late 1970s, by which time they were declared obsolete and replaced with new facilities in the East End.Place Jacques Cartier and the Champs de Mars served a far more vital purpose – as the city’s chief public market, leading an expansive collection of such markets throughout the urban core (many of which would be re-built or renovated with 1930s Keynesian-style ‘make-work’ stimulus funding). Again, proximity to farmer’s markets offering locally-grown high-quality market fair have transformed parts of the urban core, and a re-investment by the city in such facilities is demonstrably beneficial to the attraction and retention of urban property owners today.

A public transit network, comprising tramways and later, trolley buses and then diesel buses, would carry hundreds of thousands of people every day throughout this urban area, as we can see in the comprehensive MTC route plan pictured above. It is during this era that the first Métro proposals were floated around given the saturation of the existing infrastructure. Still, it worked and worked well, offering thorough coverage of the city for a modest fare.


Saint James Street, predecessor to Bay Street – Montréal circa 1910

Trams were focused on the Craig Street Terminus, roughly the site of today’s Place-d’Armes station & Palais de Congres. Major train stations of the era included Bonaventure, later replaced with Central Station in its current location, Windsor Station, Gare Viger, Dalhousie Station, Westmount Station and the Park Avenue Station, forming a ring of railway stations in and around the city, many of which were directly accessible by the trams. The Mount Royal Tunnel, completed in 1911, would allow for the eventual development of the Garden City styled modernist suburbs further to the West along the Canadian Northern Railway corridor headed towards Ottawa. It is within the area bounded by these traffic, transit and transport systems that our modern city grew.


Not the work of the author – taken before the renovation of the Square in 2010-2012

Tall buildings built during this era included the very first, New York Life Insurance Building (1887) and Aldred Building (1931) both excellent examples of over-riding design concepts vis-a-vis large corporate and commercial ‘landmarks’ constructed at the time. They can be described as hierarchical and paternalist – buildings of the epoch (but especially those built and conceived of in the 1920s) tended to put gather people of a similar pursuit in one place and integrate necessary services for the prospective tenants, with the power and prestige of the individual rising in accordance with the floor of their office. In the case of the New York Life Insurance Building, it’s top floors were dedicated to the largest private law library in all of Canada at the time of construction, and as such the majority of the volume was rented to the establishment law firms of the day, with commercial insurance and banking services at the base. The Aldred Building was designed and conceived as a property for the Aldred Company, an international financier that sought an iconic property for the historic though often over-crowded Place d’Armes.


Bell Telephone Building on Beaver Hall Hill

Other examples of note which left lasting impressions on the urban tapestry were the Bell Telephone Building and Annex (1929), occupying an entire block and fronting onto Beaver Hall Hill, signalling the transition from a ‘downtown’ below the hill to one increasingly occupying prestige properties further ‘uptown’. This process would be completed in the 1960s with the near total abandonment of Old Saint James Street in favour of the new mega projects going up in what can now be described as the Central Business District on René Lévesque Boulevard. This building served as Bell’s head office, the veritable brains of the operation – a massive switching facility – was integrated into the complex by means of the Annex facing University, completed a few years afterwards. In this single edifice one could find the company’s institutional memory, it’s research & development component, it’s brains, heart and soul – all under one roof. It included a company club, a restaurant and cafeteria, a convenience store and medical offices for employees, in addition to employee lounges. En lieu of stock options and a parking spot near the building, this was a pretty good set-up for the corporate climbers of the day. Other head offices of similar concept designed in this era include the Sun Life Building (completed in 1931) and the Royal Bank Building (1927).

This era also witnessed the development of very large block-sized constructions, such as the Dominion Square Building (1930), featuring mixed use office space, parking garage and a shopping arcade and subsequently dominating a public square (you can also consider the head office of the Canada Cement Company on Phillips Square. There was also a tendency to group activities together under a single building, such as the Guy and Drummond medical Buildings (again, here with specialized services for pre-Medicare health services, such as large elevators, incinerators, and even facilities to conduct small operations). There’s also the oddball case of the Architect’s Building (completed in 1930 and demolished in 1955) which as you might expect contained the offices of several prominent architectural firms, including the offices of Ross & Macdonald. Finally, several prestige mega hotels were developed during this time to reflect Montréal’s growing international standing. Hotels such as the Queen’s (1885), Windsor (1878 & 1906), Ritz-Carlton (1912) and Mount Royal Hotel (1922) were all built as highly integrated facilities, including banquet and reception spaces that were frequently host to Big Bands of the era, restaurants and other diverse services.

It seems as though the primary focus of many of these comparatively massive projects was integration of one kind or another – integration to bring the general public into interaction with a space, integration of services for the workforce, for tourists inside landmark buildings, a high-degree of connectivity between the work, play and living environments, and above all proximity to everything you could ever need between office and home.

I could go on at length about the development of universities, hospitals, schools, theatres and other institutions during that time, to say nothing of the grand department stores, but I don’t think it would add anything to what I view as the fundamental driving concept behind construction of that era. They were designed to last because the plan was to create an individual affinity for the building as a result of the conveniences it offered, to associate a building with a space and functions. Unlike later eras which focused on malleability, rental potential and generally speaking the seasonal influences of style and fashion, this era produced the first phase of modern urban high-density permanence. Though re-purposing would have seemed unlikely to the architects of the day, it’s ultimately a surprising testament to the enduring sophistication of these properties that help keep them alive.

Food for thought indeed. How enduring are our more modern creations?

One thought on “Phases of Development – Part One {1880-1930}”

  1. Loved the article. It totally strokes my obsession/fascination with Montreal development and infrastructure :)

    It’s amazing what went up during this period, and how much of Montreal’s Victorian guise was then razed in the 50’s-60’s to make way for the next phase which was equally fascinating.

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