The Redpath Mansion – Now What?

Redpath House - Credit: Guillaume St-Jean, 2005
Redpath House – Credit: Guillaume St-Jean, 2005

Good news in the world of architectural heritage preservation (boy I like writing that) as culture minister Maka Kotto announced a thirty-day moratorium on the planned demolition of the historic Redpath Mansion.

The culture ministry used a law stipulating that if the government feels there’s a ‘real threat of significant degradation of a property that may have heritage value’ it can stop work for about a month during which time it would (drum roll) produce a study concerning the building and it’s architectural and/or historic value.

So…where exactly does this leave us?

The government has a month to produce a study about a building Heritage Montreal already likely has a massive dossier on. I’m not sure what new conclusions the government hopes to arrive at. The home on Ave. de la Musée was once owned by the John Redpath, owner of the eponymous sugar refinery and builder of the Lachine Canal.

*Note – come to think of it, I’ve seen this building named after Frederick Redpath as wellm so this will need to be cleared up.

So there’s the short answer as to whether the house has any historic value. Montreal simply wouldn’t have become the metropolis it is today without the Lachine Canal. Mr. Redpath is as good an example as any of the kinds of wealthy industrialists that once drove the economy of this city (and province, and country) and who populated the Square Mile district over one hundred years ago (note – it was never actually referred to as the Golden Square Mile).

Also, the home was the site of the grisly murder of two Redpaths, a murder unsolved to this day – see more here.

As to the architecture, the building is significant in that it’s one of the few remaining examples of Queen Anne style architecture, and was designed by the noted architect Sir Andrew Taylor (who also designed the Redpath and Osler libraries at McGill) and constructed circa. 1885-1886.

Unfortunately, the building has been left to crumble, an excellent case of ‘demolition via neglect’.

It’s significant in that respect too, and this is why, despite the building’s poor shape, I’m glad this injunction will prevent it’s demolition.

In sum, I want it to continue standing forevermore, and I want nothing to be done to it to save it.

I’d very much like for this city to have a permanent ruin, a once gorgeous, impressive, ludicrously well-appointed Gilded Age mansion destroyed by greed and political incompetence.

Let it stand, a testament to itself.

Plus, I’m curious to see how long it will stand if we just let nature take its course.

It’s been vacant for more than thirty years, and a portion of the home was demolished prior to the previous injunction filed against the rightful owners of the home, the Sochaczevski family, also the proprietors of The Suburban.

How the situation unfolded works something like this. First, the Sochaczevski’s purchased the house with the intention of having it demolished so that a condo tower could be built on the site. Apparently there was no problem until Heritage Montreal/Sauvons Montreal caught wind of it and had a last-minute injunction filed with the provincial authorities. this was done, but not before part of the house had already been demolished. Then there was a lot of legal wrangling in which nothing was done for many years, the building left to crumble.

Now the owners are making yet another attempt to develop a new building on the site – though this time it’ll be for ‘student housing’ (though not actually affiliated with any known university, nor offering the coziness of sleeping in something which is designed buy the same companies who build prisons…) i.e. really expensive flop houses for wealthy foreign students.

And once again someone has stepped in to prevent the demolition from taking place.

We’re literally back to square one.

From what I know the Sochaczevski’s haven’t been compensated one iota for all this dicking around.

And it’s not like Heritage Montreal or the Quebec government has any idea what to do with the building either. In fact, no one does, and because of the poor condition it’s in, no one wants to front the cash to fix it up.

The owners can be blamed for letting it go to waste, but at the same time, it’s ridiculous for us to have heritage preservation laws on the books if there’s no compensation nor any follow through.

It’s quite the penalty to the owners but it also demands that the city and province have a plan and a better way to deal with problems such as these. And you’d think we’d have figured out that solution quite some time ago, given architectural preservation drives our tourism industry.

So all to say I’m encouraged by the government’s decision but would love to get a little further than simply delaying demolition. We need a plan and I don’t think the PQ is going to start dishing out money to renovate a Gilded Age mansion with no plan regarding its use after the job is complete. And the Redpath House is just the tip of the iceberg.

What about the Lafontaine House, crumbling away as the last piece of the forgotten Overdale neighbourhood. Louis-Hyppolyte Lafontaine was arguably more important than even John Redpath and his house is in slightly better condition and there’s no plan at all to save it from being demolished.

Then there’s the Notman House, also historically significant. Last I heard it was being used for local start-ups but that was a while ago and so the project may have fizzled. The old Dandurand Wines office on Sherbrooke (the Forget House?) has been empty for some time, but at the very least is being maintained.

Long story short, the city, province and federal government need to coordinate to save these homes and repurpose them for the public’s use. The same can and should be said for our city’s many churches, which have become exceptionally important not for religious and spiritual reasons, but because they provide vitally necessary space to community groups. As neat as it might be to convert one or two old churches into condominiums and/or spas, we need to remember that these buildings fundamentally belong to the public and not the highest bidder.

But again, without any kind of organization in place to transition these buildings into new roles and secure funding, we’re at as much of a risk of losing significant amounts of our architectural heritage inasmuch as the physical realms of community and civic engagement.

Which in turn begs the question – what is the point of architectural preservation advocacy groups if they’re limited to simply pointing out dangers and cataloguing what has been lost and what might be lost in the future?

This city needs a heritage trust.

One thought on “The Redpath Mansion – Now What?”

  1. I note one of the “uses” on the Heritage Montreal site is to “the vestiges of the house be integrated into a pedestrian path that would link the mountain to Sherbrooke Street”.

    Just who would pay for that?

    And what exactly can be developed in this city? It seems everything from the summit to the river is “on the mountain”. Some functional buildings should be saved. But what purpose do we give buildings or ruins to “preserve” history and at what cost?

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