Many years ago when I found myself making my way towards the Tam Tams one sunny summer Sunday and wound up in the middle of a strange festival going along the Mount Royal Avenue side of Parc Jeanne-Mance.
I remember thinking this was an odd location for a festival – it’s a baseball diamond – and what was stranger was that everything was in English. All the signs and all the lettering on the side of the trucks was in English. Had I inadvertently walked into the middle of a film shoot?
Fortunately not; Montreal is a stop on the annual North American tour schedule of the travelling Festival of India!
In other words, you can add to our city’s dynamic list of annual festivals one thrown by the Hare Krishnas. They’ll be back, quite likely in Parc Jeanne-Mance, July 9th and 10th, though it makes me wonder why the Krishnas aren’t set up across Parc Avenue immediately adjacent to the Tam Tams. You’d figure that would be very complimentary what with the ‘expanded consciousness’ going on around the base of the Cartier Monument.
As it was this past weekend; the Tam Tams in particular and Mount Royal generally speaking tend to bring out large crowds, but Sunday was epic. It’s too bad the city doesn’t try to estimate the crowd size at the Tams, but that might be for the best. As it stands, and as it has always been, the Tams graciously features zero city involvement. It’s unorganized, essentially spontaneous and quintessentially Montreal.
That got me thinking – how long have people been congregating in this particular part of town?
Or, from another perspective, what is it that made this space public? What precluded residential development on the land that would become Mount Royal and Jeanne-Mance parks?
There are a few different reasons why, but it’s worth noting that annual festivals played an interesting role.
Mount Royal Park was inaugurated in 1876 and the city’s principle exhibition centre – the Crystal Palace – was moved from the foot of Victoria Street (between Sainte-Catherine and Cathcart) to the ‘exhibition grounds’ in Fletcher’s Field two years later. Fletcher’s Field ran between Saint-Urbain and Parc, from Duluth up to Saint Joseph, and was used for annual exhibitions, sports and even as a military parade ground.
The image above was created for the newspaper L’Opinion Publique in 1881 and offers a bird’s eye view of the ‘Provincial Agricultural and Industrial Exhibition’ and its buildings. The Crystal Palace is in the background, up on what is now Saint Jospeh, with a Quebec, Montreal, Ottawa and Occidental Railway train passing behind it. The racetrack in the foreground would have been located between Mount Royal Avenue and Marie-Anne, or just about where the Festival of India sets up shop today.
Curiously, the area’s association with psychoactive plants dates back all the way to 1879, when the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain recognized Fletcher’s Field as a prime source for Hyoscyamus niger, also known as Henbane or Stinking Nightshade.
I doubt many of the spectators attending the annual agricultural and industrial exhibitions back in the city’s Victorian Era would have consuming Stinking Nightshade, though it may have been popular among the various animals brought to the site. The lengths of the exhibition on both the Parc and Esplanade sides was basically two long stables for the many horses brought to the exhibition grounds. Much like today, the area would have had a particularly pungent odour…
Also worth pointing out: the first known photograph of uniformed ice hockey players in Canada was taken in the Crystal Palace in early 1881, the same year of the illustration at top. During the winter months the large interior hall of the Crystal Palace served as one of Montreal’s main skating rinks, the other being Victoria Rink, today a parking garage running between Drummond and Stanley, just up from René Lévesque.
Our Crystal Palace would ultimately be destroyed by fire (in 1896), much like the more famous example built earlier in London, and the land between Mount Royal and Saint Joseph would shortly thereafter be redeveloped into much of the residential housing we find there today.
The land south of Mount Royal would remain public, though it would be many more years before it took its present form, with an emphasis on sport, as Parc Jeanne-Mance.
To recap, the residents were evacuated from their homes this past weekend after a massive sinkhole developed underneath the row houses at 181-191 Mountain Street. Though it isn’t entirely clear what caused the sinkhole, there’s a condo tower going up right next door and they’re presently excavating the site. Problems began developing around the start of the month when a water pipe broke, consequently flooding the adjacent pit. This led to the address closest to the construction site being evacuated. A crack noticed at the time grew and forced the subsequent evacuation and demolition.
The residents had to leave with whatever they could carry; the building had to be demolished immediately.
So a small group of long-time Griffintown residents, some of whom were paying as little as $400 per month in rent, very suddenly lost everything they owned, in addition to their historically significant homes, and found themselves both homeless and somehow responsible for the demolition of their homes.
I should point out that the condo tower concept did involve both the integration of a heritage property as well as the re-creation of the ‘human-scale’ of Mountain Street. An antique house was removed from the construction site last year and the developer aimed to re-integrate that structure, along with a reconstructed façade of two other since demolished buildings into the new condo and office complex. Based on the conceptual renderings available, it would seem that this project did intend to maintain, at the very least, the appearance of the former working class suburb.
Today’s unofficial announcement was that the city’s housing department, the provincial housing authority and the South West borough will all participate in the reconstruction of the demolished row houses, and this is fundamentally good news, but it begs the question: what, if anything, is really being done to ensure the long-term preservation of the city’s oldest buildings?
Dinu Bumbaru of Heritage Montréal re-iterated a familiar lament; “…(in Montreal), there’s a disconnect between the discourse on heritage and the action on heritage.”
He’s got a point (and he is the local authority on all matters pertaining to architectural heritage); late last year city inspectors discovered unauthorized alterations and severe structural damage to the former Mount Stephen Club, one of few remaining Square Mile mansions from the late 19th century. Less than a month ago the Gazette reported city inspectors had not visited the site in fifteen months, during which time major excavation work had been undertaken by real-estate developer Tidan.
So now the provincial culture ministry is suing Tidan and they, in turn, have to carefully ‘deconstruct’ the house, retrofit the foundation, and then re-build the house, adding millions of dollars to the total cost of the new hotel.
Had the building been inspected more regularly, perhaps this could all have been avoided.
There are plenty of other examples of the city administration dragging its heels vis-a-vis the city’s architectural heritage. The Snowdon Theatre has sat abandoned for three years and was recently nearly destroyed by a deliberately set fire. The Empress Theatre is supposed to become a cinema, but the city has done almost nothing to prepare it for eventual rehabilitation. Place des Nations is used as a parking lot in the summertime and in winter looks likes the ruins of a futuristic city. The Redpath House was left in such a poor state it was inevitable it would be knocked down, and far more importantly, the Lafontaine House, which much like the Saint Anne Co-op, sits precariously near two large open pits, has no plan for any future use or publicly-minded preservation, despite being the former home of the first Prime Minister of the United Province of Canada and the site of a violent confrontation during the burning of Parliament in 1849.
Lafontaine House is remarkable because its history and heritage had been forgotten entirely. For a very long time it was just a very old house in the since demolished Overdale neighbourhood. It was during the demolition of this neighbourhood (you guessed it, to make way for a condominium project) that Senator Serge Joyal discovered the stately home at the intersection of Overdale and Lucien L’Allier was in fact a building of exceptional historical value.
That was 29 years ago. Overdale was obliterated, the Lafontaine House stood, but no effort has been made at any time since to better protect it or make any use out of it. Today a hotel, apartment tower and condominium towers are going up all around it, with the onus on the property developer to maintain the house’s physical integrity.
Maybe it will become a restaurant…
Similarly, condo and apartment towers are blooming around the now demolished Griffintown row houses near the intersection of Mountain and Wellington, pictured above, which date back to 1875. Perhaps more importantly, they’re one of the very few residential buildings that actually date back to the era in which Griffintown was a predominantly Anglo-Irish working class neighbourhood, and not a marketing device used to sell condominiums.
The ‘Brickfields’ condo project is going up next door to the now demolished row houses, one of several ‘branded living’ condominium complexes that are transforming The Griff. I’m not opposed to this transformation per se; the neighbourhood was gutted and disconnected from the rest of the city for more than forty years. It’s dynamic repopulation is fundamentally a good thing. Griffintown began it’s decline with the opening of the Saint Lawrence Seaway in 1959 (a considerable irony, given the community came to be with the construction of the Lachine Canal and Victoria Bridge) and was subsequently re-zoned for light industry in the 1960s. The Bonaventure Expressway further cut the community off from adjacent neighbourhoods, and the parish church of Saint Ann closed in 1970 and was quickly demolished. Around that time the neighbourhood’s population had shrunk to about 800. Thirty years later it was estimated at less than 100.
Today Griffintown is on the rise – literally. The area was rezoned once again in the late 2000s for residential purposes, including medium-sized towers of between 10 and 20 floors, and the rapidly rising population was estimated at over 6,000 in the 2011 census.
While I’m in favour of rehabilitating disused parts of the city and developing parking lots into residential towers, this needs to be done in such a fashion that the architectural and urban heritage of Montreal is preserved, if not promoted. If real-estate developers are inclined to build towers and excavate foundations adjacent to properties of heritage or historical value, then extra care needs to be taken to ensure problems such as with the Mount Stephen House and the Saint Anne’s housing co-op aren’t repeated. In the case of the former it appears that the developer was both careless and did unauthorized work, but that the city was also responsible in that inspections weren’t carried out. In the case of the latter, given the spontaneous decision of three different levels of government to collaborate on rebuilding these homes, there’s the possibility the real-estate developer is not actually at fault, but also that civic authorities may have dropped the ball once again.
I suspect we’ll find out soon enough; lives were nearly ruined. These homes had stood for 142 years and it’s only now that there’s a massive excavation going on right next door that a sinkhole developed, resulting in the demolition of more of our city’s architectural heritage. Without buildings like these, it’s hard to sell Griffintown condos with an appeal to the history and working class roots of the neighbourhood.
Rebuilding these homes is a nice gesture, but they will not be the same homes. Whatever heritage value they had has mostly been lost.
What a gift it would be, for our city’s 375th anniversary, to finally establish a heritage policy with real teeth, such that we could ensure the long-term preservation of our city’s built environment.
Without heritage, Montreal has very little cachet.
A La Presse exclusive reports Tourisme Montréal is actively pursuing the Jim Pattison Group to develop an aquarium here in Montreal. Pattison owns the Ripley’s Aquarium in Toronto, as well as Ripley’s Entertainment of Orlando.
Then, as now, the Old Port is the likely location for such an attraction, given it’s an established tourism hub and is conveniently located near a body of water. That said, Tourisme Montréal president Yves Lalumière is open to other locations and other developers. As with many things in this city, it’s all very much still up in the air, and nothing as yet is concrete.
What is concrete is the existence of something I would argue is vastly superior to an aquarium. It’s called the Montreal Biodome, it draws about a million people a year and is a fantastic example of what a city can do with surplus Olympic infrastructure. The amazing story of the Biodome’s conception and development will be the subject of a forthcoming article for this website (stay tuned).
That aside, the apparent interest in getting a private entertainment firm to build and operate an aquarium in the Old Port is at least in part related to the story of Montreal’s previous aquarium, a ‘Centennial Gift’ from the Alcan Corporation to the City of Montreal, and a component of Expo 67.
The original aquarium was located Ile Sainte-Helene, immediately adjacent to La Ronde. It featured two pavilions, one including the standard galleries of various marine species, and a second, essentially an amphitheater, where trained dolphins put on various demonstrations of their myriad talents. The latter building remains and is recognizable given its copper ‘circus tent’ roof. The pavilion has since been integrated into La Ronde for diverse non-aquarium related purposes.
I find it interesting that fifty years ago two completely different firms each decided it was prudent to gift the City of Montreal with public education facilities, as long as they got to keep the naming rights and the city took care of maintenance and operations. In the same year Alcan delivered an aquarium and Dow Breweries gifted us our first planetarium.
Everything was going along splendidly until a municipal workers’ strike in February 1980, at which point those responsible for feeding the dolphins were either prevented from doing their jobs or, in a fit of worker solidarity, decided not to cross the picket line. Some of the dolphins starved to death in their holding tanks. The aquarium had a hard time recovering after that. The remaining dolphins were sold to something called ‘Flipper’s Sea School’ (since renamed the Dolphin Research Centre) and the aquarium struggled throughout the 80s. The idea to redevelop the aquarium in the Old Port isn’t new either, as the city had a plan in the late 1980s to move it to a more ‘accessible’ location.
That plan fell through around the time of the economic recession of the early 1990s, and as it happened the city’s parks department was already busy developing the Biodome in the old Olympic Velodrome. The aquarium was closed in 1991 with some of its animals transferred to the Biodome which opened the following year in time for the city’s 350th anniversary.
And so we come full circle, renewed interest in developing an aquarium in the Old Port for yet another oddball anniversary.
I’d prefer not to lose more public space in the Old Port to obvious tourist fare, but it seems like the crown agency responsible for the Old Port is hell-bent on occupying every square inch of the place with a cornucopia of attractions that are, generally-speaking, too expensive for locals to bother with.
Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada, in Toronto, seems successful enough. It has a prime location near the base of the CN Tower and charges thirty dollars a pop, and it’s hard not to be impressed with the walk-through aquariums and wide variety of species they have to offer. However, as Steve Kupferman notes in this 2013 article for Torontoist, the displays are hardly realistic, with little to no effort made to make the habitats look anything like the natural environment.
At the end of the day the Ripley’s Aquarium is infotainment; an attraction without any real substance. Not to say the original Alcan Aquarium was any more of a serious scientific endeavour what with performing dolphins being the centrepiece of the attraction.
And I guess that’s why I feel a bit uneasy about it. Despite the fact that it’s basically been done before, it seems like it wouldn’t fit, like it would impose itself and be fundamentally disconnected from the city it’s set in. An aquarium with an associated research institute and a public education and/or conservation mission would be a different matter, one I could get behind. But just because Toronto has an expensive tourist trap doesn’t mean should we copy them, ‘historic’ cooperation agreements aside.
We should note that the Toronto example, which opened in 2013 at a cost of $130 million, received $30 million in government funding in grants and tax breaks. If there’s sufficient interest in having an aquarium in this city, then either let Pattison assume the total cost of the project, or build a public aquarium using public funds to serve a public good.
Just as long as there’s a clause stipulating the aquarium’s staff still have to feed the animals, even if they’re on strike. This is Montreal, after all. The application of common sense should never be taken for granted.
Generally speaking, I’m a fan of urban exploration.
However, there’s a few golden rules we should all keep in mind when it comes to exploring the secret and unseen parts of the city: don’t leave any trace behind, don’t hurt yourself, don’t inconvenience others, and above all else, don’t negatively impact the place you’re exploring.
Say, as an example, by starting a fire that may threaten a vintage theatre and the residents of the adjacent apartment complex.
But if you are so inclined to start a fire in an abandoned building, for the love of all that is good and holy, please share a video or photographs of your illegal deeds on social media, so you can be found and eventually prosecuted.
At this point you may be asking; “but who on Earth would be so foolish to do such a thing?”
The answer: teenagers. Boneheaded teenagers. And apparently some hotshot young videographers as well.
In an astounding coincidence, on the very same day that photographs, like the one above, emerged online of several teenagers apparently starting a fire on the second floor of the abandoned Snowdon Theatre, this video of several people galavanting through the Métro tunnels was posted to YouTube and widely distributed on local social media networks.
In the latter case, the film crew accessed one tunnel while the Métro was still in operation, and then proceeded to make their way into the rear conductor’s cabin of an operational train, locking the door when accosted by an STM employee. As La Presse notes, there’s a safety issue inasmuch as there’s a security issue. It was just last week that Daesh sympathizers detonated bombs in a Brussels Métro station; the film crew in the ‘Lowest Point’ video had access to Métro controls, the track, and service tunnels and the various equipment kept in those tunnels. My guess is they were probably down in the tunnels for more than hour, and evaded STM security throughout.
Unless of course these are off duty and out of uniform STM employees who happen to be urban exploration enthusiasts; that would be one of those ‘everything worked out better than expected’ conclusions I don’t think is terribly likely.
I’m torn, really. I feel creeping adulthood and my gut says “don’t go exploring Métro tunnels”, especially not when the trains are actually in operation. It’s immensely dangerous, not to mention inconvenient for thousands or tens of thousands of people who may be affected by a temporary line closure. I think the code ‘900-02’ announces a suspected infiltration of the tunnels; if either an STM employee or the system’s CCTV system suspects there’s someone in the tunnels, they have to call it in, close it down and investigate.
So while I find this video intriguing and interesting, I can’t in good conscience recommend others do the same. The risk is far too great.
That said, the STM could probably make some coin offering after-hours behind-the-scenes tours of the city’s transit infrastructure. I would pay good money to get a guided walking tour of the Orange Line, and am certain many others would too.
It’s remarkable to me that two different groups of people, in the same city and at essentially the same time, both recorded acts of trespassing and other illegal activities and then posted it to social media, seemingly oblivious the video or photo evidence could be used against them.
Kristian Gravenor has weighed-in on the Snowdon’s fire, but places the blame for the building’s slow demise ultimately on the city and borough government. In his opinion, neither have been proactive with regards to saving this building, and he suspects the borough will now announce it can’t be saved, and that as such it ought to be razed to fast-track new construction.
I would like to hope he’s wrong, and that this is simply a matter of local government lacking in vision and hoping for ‘free market’ solutions to solve problems that clearly fall within the public domain.
But when you consider that the Snowdon is the latest in an unfortunately long list of landmark Montreal theatres abandoned to ignoble fates without even an iota of effort by municipal officials to save them, it makes you wonder. This isn’t a new problem, it dates back forty years to the destruction of the Capitol Theatre, arguably the grandest of them all. More recently, the Seville and York were pulled down (to build condos and a university pavilion, respectfully), while the Snowdon, Cartier and most importantly, the Empress, lie abandoned and in ruin (and there are maybe a dozen more scattered elsewhere about the city).
In a city known for its nightlife, live entertainment and general cultural engagement, why is it very nearly impossible to renovate and rehabilitate old theatres and make them useful elements of the community at large?
According to the Journal de Montréal, the fire at Montreal’s historic Snowdon Theatre, though severe, was not so bad it weakened the structure. Damage seems to have been concentrated on the roof. The three-alarm blaze involved 90 firefighters and 35 fire-fighting vehicles. So far so good: excellent response, no casualties, the building’s still standing. Firefighters are investigating to determine what started the blaze, as the former theatre is abandoned and – at least technically – unoccupied. Fire’s don’t habitually start themselves…
It’s the second major blaze in as many days. A fire tore through three abandoned buildings at the intersection of King and Wellington streets in Old Montreal Friday morning, leaving little more than the exterior walls of the triplet of antique edifices (and on that note: these have since been demolished, according to firefighter spox Ian Ritchie, the walls were ‘too unstable’). Montreal police arson squad investigators have described that fire as ‘suspicious’. There were plans to build a condominium project on that site, though this drew the ire of preservation activists and the plan ultimately fell-through. The Snowdon Theatre, similarly abandoned and up-until-now likely to have been converted into condos, falls in a grey area architectural preservation wise. It’s historic and old, but this isn’t usually enough to get a building officially listed. Many of Montreal’s iconic movie houses have been razed owing to this fact.
That request was denied. The borough indicated to Gravenor three separate articles could be used to justify the borough’s refusal to provide this basic information.
Remember, the Snowdon Theatre is for sale and the public, ostensibly, has a right to bid on it (as long as you have ten large lying around). But information about the building’s sale, or its condition, is not considered public information, at least in part because the borough feels making such information public would either unduly harm an individual, or benefit another, or possibly “have a serious adverse effect on the economic interests of the public body or group of persons under its jurisdiction.”
As far as the borough is concerned, knowing whether this building constitutes a veritable heritage site (by virtue of the basic information about the building the city would have to have access to already), and knowing how much (or how little) was spent on it ever since the borough bought the building back in 2004, could be risky either for themselves or some theoretical, legally-plausible citizen.
My guess is it’s likely the former.
Gravenor also brings up the fact that the upper-level of the post-renovation Snowdon Theatre was, for many years, used as a gymnasium that had produced some quality athletes and – most importantly – was still very much in use right up until the borough kicked a bunch of kids to the curb back in 2013. In principle the borough replaced one gym with another, though in practice the kids, mostly young girls, got short-changed, with the new facilities essentially inadequate for gymnastics. The gym was basically the only part of the post-renovation complex that was well-used, and it permitted some interior decorative and design elements to be preserved.
Naturally, since families and children were enjoying themselves and exercising, the borough decided they should put a quick end to it all and evict them. Officially, the ‘roof was damaged’ and thus the city-owned building had to be… abandoned rather than repaired.
Naturally, …because this is Montreal and graft runs the local economy.
So for three years the Snowdon sat vacant and neither the city proper nor the borough did anything to protect, preserve or promote this building. And it’s not like we’re discussing a little-known property tucked away out of sight either; the Snowdon Theatre’s iconic marquee is one of the few things worth looking at from the bottom of the Décarie Trench.
So how did we get here? And is the Snowdon a potential heritage site worth preserving?
The theatre was completed in 1937 after a five-year, Great Depression related hiatus in cinema and theatre construction in Montreal. It was worth the wait, as the theatre was visually striking in its nascent International style. The theatre is often identified as an Art Deco design, but in fact is a melange of different styles including Art Deco and Streamline Moderne. The style was a major leap forward and signals the first of a new generation of Montreal theatres. It was large, spacious and boldly decorated by Emmanuel Briffa, the renown Maltese theatre decorator who left his mark all over our city. The theatre was built by United Amusements, a leading theatre chain of the day, and mostly showed double-bills with a schedule aimed to accommodate the lives and lifestyles of those living within walking proximity (which at the time would have been predominantly middle-class and suburban). The hall sat 882 and, quite unlike the minimalist exterior, had just about every square inch decorated. Tile, stained glass, plaster reliefs, sculptures and frescoes made the building’s interiors into something of a technicolor wonderland. The Snowdon’s lobby had a strong marine theme, topped off with a gigantic aquarium.
It’s remarkable actually, that theatre-owners put so much time, money and effort into decorating their theatres back in the day. Can you imagine an aquarium in the Paramount or at the Forum? How long would that last?
And if all that isn’t remarkable enough, it’s equally amazing all this work would be carelessly painted over, removed or otherwise destroyed by several ‘renovations’ that took place in the 1960s and 1970s. There are no known photographs of the opulent and imaginative lobby, a scarce few of the theatre’s interior from its glory days.
What finally dragged the Snowdon under, like many other classic Montreal theatres, was one-part advances in technology (like multiplex cinemas and VCRs) and one-part moral decay. Porn hit the big screen in a big way back in the 1970s and a great number of antique vaudeville theatres had their lives prolonged somewhat when these theatres turned over to X-rated fare, the Snowdon no exception.
Unfortunately, and as you might imagine, once a theatre descends into becoming a ‘jack-shack’ it rarely manages to pick itself back up again to be anything else. Cinema l’Amour, on The Main just south of Duluth, is a good example of pornography saving an ancient theatre, as it has been in that business since the 1960s (the building itself dates back to 1914).
The Snowdon stopped being a theatre in 1982 and was left vacant for a few years until it was purchased by Monteva Holdings. That firm converted the Snowdon into its current form: the theatre was bisected with the upper portion becoming a gymnasium, the lower portion converted into offices and retail space. The marquee was left intact, but just about everything inside changed completely. The project was ultimately unsuccessful, as the building was once again vacant by the late 1990s.
What little that remained intact of the original theatre was limited chiefly to the ceiling of the former theatre’s hall, and it’s here where Saturday’s fire occurred. If the roof was in need of repairs three years ago when the borough evicted the gymnasium, it most certainly needs them to be completed now, lest the whole building be given over to the elements. Worth noting: roof problems are what’s chiefly responsible for keeping NDG’s Empress Theatre in its state of advanced decrepitude. As far as I can tell, prohibitive renovation costs (dictated by the borough) have sunk every plan to revitalize and rehabilitate that space, and once again the borough and city seem perfectly content to simply let ‘nature take its course’ and do nothing at all.
So, will your elected officials take the hint and act fast to save this landmark?
It’s hard to tell, but if you’re so inclined and passionate about preserving our city’s architectural heritage and places and spaces of recreation and leisure, I highly recommend reaching out to them directly. I’m hopeful they’ll respond favourably to increased public interest in supporting our city’s rich cultural heritage by working to find long-term solutions to make these old theatres viable performance venues once again. Just about every neighbourhood in this city has one, and if resurrected, it’s my contention that the long-term economic stimulus provided by these cultural centres would be far higher than the cost of the initial investment. City officials need to work with private citizens, and not wait around for ‘free market’ solutions, to raise funds and collaborate on a mass resuscitation of Montreal’s ‘threatened theatres’. It would be an excellent project for the 375th anniversary.
If you’ll indulge me for a moment, let’s take a trip back in time.
The year is 1758 and the ‘Seven Years’ War‘ had entered its fourth year in North America. The conflict was the largest international conflagration since the Thirty Years’ War of the 17th century, and involved every ‘great power’ (with the exception of the Ottoman Empire) of the era. It was a contest between two grand coalitions, one led by Great Britain, the other by Bourbon France, and was fought throughout Europe, the Americas, West Africa and even as far afield as the Philippines. By its end, Britain would be the predominant global power, a position it would retain until the mid-20th century. But it would come at a cost for the British: within a decade of the war’s conclusion thirteen British colonies would rebel to form the United States, the nation that would ultimately replace Britain as the predominant world power a little under two centuries later. And even more importantly, some of the more immediate consequences of the Seven Years’ War would contribute to the French Revolution, arguably one of the most important events in human history. This in turn leads to the rise of Napoleon (and coming full circle here, we have Napoleon’s t-shirt. It’s at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and the story behind why we have it is the subject of another article).
As it would happen, a key event in this geopolitical crisis would take place in Montreal. Pierre de Rigaud, Marquis de Vaudreuil-Cavagnial, the last Governor General of New France, would surrender the town and all of New France to the British on September 8th, 1760, a little under a year after the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. Though this moment has been characterized as a devastating blow for the nascent community, because the town of Montreal escaped the fate of Quebec City it quickly became the new seat of British military, economic and political power in what would just over a century later become Canada. In so doing, Governor Vaudreuil and the Chevalier de Lévis exercised sound judgement and common sense that not only saved the community, but would further guarantee the long-term survival of the French Canadian people, as the Old World’s ‘rules of war’ would be thoroughly respected: property rights and deeds were upheld; religion, customs, laws, language and culture were all retained and the British guaranteed the right of safe-passage back home for anyone who so desired. The French colonial administrators and military personnel packed-up and sailed back to France, leaving behind them a distinct society over a century in the making.
The map above is entitled ‘Plan of the Town and Fortifications of Montreal or Ville Marie in Canada‘ and dates back to January 30th, 1758. It was engraved by Thomas Jefferys, a London cartographer also known as the ‘Geographer to King George III’, and would have been used by the British as they prepared for a potential attack. This is Montreal at the time of the Conquest. Jean-Claude Marsan has indicated that this map was likely based off a previous French example, though in most respects it is an accurate depiction of what Montreal looked like.
At the time Montreal was one of the largest settlements in France’s North American possessions: the population of the town of Montreal in 1760 was roughly 5,000, with perhaps 8,300 in total living on-island (the island’s total population was about the same as Quebec City in 1758, though these population figures would have changed during the course of the conflict, especially after the Siege of Quebec). In all of New France there were but 65,000 inhabitants, this compared to an estimated 1.5 million people living in the English colonies along the Atlantic Coast. France’s loss of its North American possessions to the British is hardly surprising, given this severe population imbalance. In his seminal study of the evolution of Montreal’s urban environment, Marsan points out that the Bourbon monarchs of France spent about as much on their colonial efforts as they did on their recreation at Versailles, and indebted the community of Montreal to pay for its own defences.
In 1758, Montreal was a metropolis by French North American standards, though it wasn’t particularly impressive when compared to British American cities like Boston (with an estimated population of 16,000 in 1742) or Philadelphia (13,000 the same year). Montreal was still chiefly a fortified frontier town, but given its position at the confluence of the Outaouais and Saint Lawrence rivers, not to mention its geographic attributes, was of remarkable strategic importance.
At the very end of the Ancien Régime period of Montreal’s early history, the 8,300 or so citizens who lived on-island would have occupied some familiar territory. There would have been several other smaller settlements dotted around the island, including Sault-au-Récollets (at the Back River), Pointe-Claire, Lachine, Senneville (along with its fort) and Pointe-aux-Trembles, as well as the Sulpician Fort, the towers of which remain standing at the top of Fort Street on the grounds of the Grand Seminary. The main settlement where the majority of the population lived would have occupied much of what we today call Old Montreal. The town pictured above would have run west to east from McGill to Saint-Hubert running from the northern wall (along today’s Saint-Antoine) down to the riverfront. There would have been just five roads leading out of the fortified town, each with small clusters of houses lining the streets outside the walls. The roadway heading northwest (and perpendicular to the river) is none other than The Main, Boul. Saint-Laurent, arguably Montreal’s most storied street.
The two main east-west arteries, Rue Saint-Paul and Rue Notre-Dame, haven’t changed since they were laid out by François Dollier de Casson in 1672, as were the smaller intersecting north-south streets, like Rue Saint-Francis-Xavier, Saint-Sulpice, Saint-Jean and Saint-Pierre. The wall that surrounded Montreal in 1758 would have been constructed in 1717 by the famed military engineer Gaspard Chaussegros de Léry, and it’s within the confines of these protective walls that Montreal began to grow in earnest.
The 1758 map details the city’s most important buildings, some of which exist to this day. First and foremost is the Sulpician Seminary on Place d’Armes, whose construction dates back to 1687. The seminary’s clock, installed in 1701, as well as its gardens, are the oldest of their kind on the continent. The second oldest extant building pictured here is the central section of the former Grey Nuns’ Hospital, called the Freres Charron General Hospital at the time. This building, located outside the protective walls but south of the Rivière Saint-Pierre, would have served the town’s poorest citizens as well as acting like a kind of asylum for the lame and insane.
Montreal’s other important buildings in 1758 would have included the parish church of Notre-Dame, located in the middle of Place d’Armes and adjacent to the Sulpician Seminary. Notre-Dame Basilica would replace the parish church in 1829, with the church’s bell tower razed upon the completion of the basilica’s bell towers in 1843. Across Rue Saint-Sulpice was the convent of the Congregation Notre-Dame and the Hotel-Dieu, the town’s principal hospital, which they ran. The Hotel-Dieu was established on that site in 1688, and would have burned and been rebuilt three times by 1758.
Further east (and identified by the letter C) is the Chateau Vaudreuil, also designed by Chaussegros de Léry, which served as Governor General Vaudreuil’s official residence and was destroyed by fire in 1803. Subsequently, the land was bought by local merchants and turned over to the city on the grounds it became a public market. Place Jacques-Cartier has stood on the site ever since. Just north, at the intersection of Rue Notre-Dame, stood the Jesuit Church, Convent and Gardens, with the church located at what is now Place Vauquelin, and Montreal City Hall occupying what was once the Jesuit’s gardens. A little further east and we come across a interesting note: ‘a small chapel burnt down’. The chapel that burned was the very first erected in the colony at the behest of Marguerite Bourgeoys in 1655. That chapel burned in 1754, four years before this map was made. The Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel that stands on the very same location today dates back to 1771.
At the far eastern edge of the town (at the letter E) stood a ‘cavalier’, which is a type of fort built inside a fort and on much higher ground, though as is indicated in the legend, it lacked a parapet. This is where Montreal’s few artillery pieces would have been located: close to the river’s edge and the eastern gate, defending the town’s arsenal and boat yard.
The links between the fortified frontier outpost of 1758 and the modern metropolis of today are at times difficult to discern. We know the city is old because there are parts that look and feel old, but the superficial antique aesthetic is misleading. Much of Old Montreal only dates back to the mid-late 19th century and some of the best-preserved examples of local Ancien Régime architecture are located, in some cases, a fair distance from the original settlement. One of the principle reasons why so little is leftover from the French colonial period is in part due to the numerous fires that swept through and destroyed parts of the town (and some of the more important buildings) throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries. It’s ironic that the protective walls that surrounded the town exacerbated the danger of large fires given the increase of population density within its walls. It also didn’t help that timber was the still the preferred construction material well into the mid-late 18th century.
By 1758 the danger of fire was far more threatening than attack by the Iroquois, and so small villages had begun to appear outside the town walls along the established ‘chemins du roy’. These roadways, much like the street grid of Old Montreal, are the most important and enduring elements of Montreal’s first urban planners. Life outside the protective walls would have had some serious benefits, namely a breath of fresh air. As the colonial era town lacked a sewage system, waste of all kinds were simply thrown into the street. Moreover, there was a fair bit of agriculture and all manner of farm animals inside the gates, often free to move about as they pleased. So the urban-suburban rivalry of Montreal is about as old as the city itself. In 1758, about 40% of the island’s population lived outside the walls.
Montreal in 1758 would have been positively medieval; the basic layout of the fortified town mimicked examples in the Southwest of France and on the English borders with Wales and Scotland from roughly four or five centuries earlier. The basic housing design, examples of which have survived in the form of traditional Quebecois architecture, are also medieval in nature, similar examples being found in Normandy. One particular element of the town’s early design was that it had two principle open spaces – one in front of the parish church (today’s Place d’Armes) and another, a market place, closer to the river and with its own gate (today called Place Royale). Here we find another urban design element that has survived to this day: the lower town, closer to the river, is the most densely populated and would have been home to the town’s merchant class. The upper part featured the town’s major religious buildings, all of which featured stately gardens. This layout also recalls that Montreal was initially conceived as a religious mission, and so those buildings occupied the higher ground of the Coteau Saint-Louis. The grade separation of the classes for the most part remains intact; the wealthiest neighbourhoods of modern Montreal are at the base of Mount Royal, the working class neighbourhoods are still ‘down the hill’ and located within proximity of the river.
Some things really never change. Individual buildings dating back to the heroic colonial era may be in short supply, but the impression of the village illustrated above is our most enduring link to Europe. You can still see the Montreal of 1758, you just have to know where – and where not – to look. Or perhaps ‘how not to look’ as it’s more often than not the spaces between the buildings, the roads and squares, that provide the greatest wealth of clues to the town that once was. This is where we discover that the roots of Old Montreal in Old Europe, and an urban aesthetic which reaches back nearly a millennium.
Montreal: a modern medieval city…
Author’s note: thanks to Alan Hustak for some corrections. First, technically Montreal never surrendered, but rather capitulated what with the overwhelming odds stacked against the town and its people in 1760. Doing so allowed the terms of surrender to be negotiated and as such facilitated Montreal’s successful, peaceful transition from one empire to another. In addition, Montreal was not the largest settlement in New France at the time, as I incorrectly stated in this article’s first draft. The population of Quebec City would have been roughly 9,000, and Trois-Rivières at about 8,000, with Montreal’s town population at 5,000 and the island’s population at roughly 8,300. These figures would have been precise up to around the time of the Seven Years’ War, though likely changed after the Battle of the Plains of Abraham and the Siege of Quebec.