I want to go to there…

L to R: Tour CIBC, Sun Life Building, 5 Place Ville-Marie, Mary, Queen of the World Cathedral, Queen Elizabeth Hotel
L to R: Tour CIBC, Sun Life Building, 5 Place Ville-Marie, Mary, Queen of the World Cathedral, Queen Elizabeth Hotel

Thanks to the magic of this isometric view of the city’s downtown core, you can appreciate a curious design element of the Sun Life Building that’s fascinated me for years.

The Sun Life Building is the big grey pyramidal building dominating the photograph above, built in three stages between 1913 and 1931 in a blend of styles I can’t quite put my finger on. There seem to be both Art Deco and Beaux Arts influences, but they don’t exactly dominate the design so I’ve never been too sure.

Either way, the original Sun Life Building was the first ‘third’ (i.e. the southern block) of the base, and this was expanded first north before the set back tower was completed at the height of the Depression, rising to some 24 floors and securing the title of largest building in the British Empire for many years.

One day many moons ago I was walking around downtown with my eyes pointed towards the skies and I noticed that I could ‘see through’ part of the building’s second tier. Whereas I had previously assumed the southern second tier was a solid block of offices I now realized there was instead an arcade of sorts, composed of columns holding an extension of the roofline, completing the symmetry of the building despite being conspicuously absent of office space. It looked like the Sun Life Building had erupted out of the ground around an ancient temple and in the process hoisted it up eight floors above the ground, gradually incorporating it into the whole.

Among this great building’s many traits are its numerous pleasant surprises, such as the building’s internal imbalance despite being outwardly perfectly (though deceptively) symmetrical – walk around the foyer and you’ll realize that though you’re in the apparent middle of the ‘pyramid’, the commercial ground floor arteries extend far further north than south. Even the elevator banks seem a bit off-centre. Cunning if you ask me, but more realistically driven by necessity – the interior form of the original Sun Life Building was, to my knowledge very well maintained, and this may explain why there’s nothing built on its roof. From what I’ve heard there’s a rather grand looking trading floor inside this building, perhaps well lit by natural light flowing in from above.

That’s the best explanation I can come up with on my own at least. I’ll need to confirm my suspicions – hopefully the building manager’s a fan of this blog.

Anyways, back when I first saw this architectural curiosity I immediately thought it belonged on film – some long sequence where the view from up there interacts with the ample surroundings and landmarks gathered around Dorchester Square. A scene with someone walking along the length of columns, the city holding steady in the background, streams of light cascading, through the arcade.

But it comes to mind that this might be an excellent place for a restaurant too. Granted the requisite renovations would require significant start-up capital, and the restaurant game is a harsh and cruel mistress even at the best of times, but I can’t imagine they’d be at a loss for customers. I can picture the tables arranged between the massive pillars, the interior recess of the Sun Life Building on one side, the cathedral and Place du Canada beyond, greens and blues in the background complementing the stone and granite, the floral arrangements and ‘hanging gardens of Babylon’ aesthetic of this most unique Montreal eatery. I’d eat there every day or as often as I could afford it.

And if there ever was a restaurant here, it’d likely end up on some master list prepared by a location management company, and so I might get my wish to see this place on film in the end anyways.

Wishful thinking I know, but what can I say – this could be an ideal location for a really top-flight restaurant in an area where establishments of that variety are, though not exactly in short supply, nonetheless stagnant.

5 thoughts on “I want to go to there…”

  1. It’s not a trading room, but a banking hall. It’s on the main floor, south end. It’s been converted to controlled-access offices, but you can get a peek at the ceiling from the door at least.

  2. I recall a movie filmed in Montréal, but supposed to happen in New-York, where Donald Sutherland was playing the United Nations secretary general.

    A scene of this movie happens in a restaurant installed in one of those upper arcades.

    As a matter of course, I don’t recall the movie title, nor the plot, being too distracted by figuring out where the different scenes were shot.

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