Tag Archives: Architecture of Montreal

Port of Call, Montreal

Days after Montrealers went home salivating at the thought of a proposed new trans-regional light rail system, the Port of Montreal, in conjunction with the municipal and provincial government, announced a $78 million renovation of the Alexandra Quay and Iberville Passenger Terminal, and an opportunity for citizens to ‘reconnect’ with the river.

The renovation and improvement project is expected to be completed in time for the 2017 cruise season, and so will result in the closure of the quay and terminal this summer. Cruise ships will instead dock east of the Jacques Cartier Bridge, with shuttle buses ferrying passengers into the splashy tourism zone delineated by antique buildings harbour-side.

You might be wondering whether it’s wise to spend $78 million building a new passenger terminal for an antiquated method of high-volume transport, but alas it seems a fair number of people do indeed access Montreal via the Old Port, and up until now they’ve been welcomed by an outdated, if not dilapidated passenger terminal.

And just how may people are we talking about?

The answer is perhaps unexpectedly high: 91,000 people last year, twice as many as in 2011. The Port Authority has been actively courting cruise lines and it seems like their work is paying off. If everything goes according to plan, annual traffic is expected to reach 120,000 passengers by 2025, and that’s nothing to sneeze at.

But of course this isn’t really a ‘transport infrastructure project’ in the same vein as the proposed ‘réseau éléctrique métropolitain’ (REM), as it will primarily benefit people who have the luxury of time and money to cruise up the Saint Lawrence. Also worth noting, some of these ships are of the casino-cruise variety. Whereas the CDPQ’s REM system still needs Ottawa and Quebec City to provide $2.5 billion in combined funding, this project has the green light with money already apparently ready to go.

So yes, public money will be spent to support private businesses and the wealthy of our society.

That being said, the most historic section of the city is largely preserved thanks to the tourism industry; so updating the passenger terminal isn’t just good for the tourism-driven businesses of Old Montreal, but the area’s physical vitality as well.

And that’s something we all ultimately benefit from; for better or for worse tourism helps protect our architectural heritage. Moreover, it should be noted that the new configuration of the quay will incorporate significant public spaces, including a green roof atop the terminal. Again, everyone gets to benefit from this as well. It’s in the port and city’s interest to encourage public use of what would otherwise be a wholly private affair.

Conceptual rendering of Iberville Terminal and Alexandra Quay - Provencher Roy
Conceptual rendering of Iberville Terminal and Alexandra Quay – Provencher Roy

And perhaps that’s leading to a more novel use of the terminal: an important part of Provencher Roy’s plan involves ‘lowering’ quay, and this may make the terminal accessible to smaller vessels, like passenger ferries (or dare I say it, perhaps some kind of Lachine Canal hydro bus).

So given the city’s only investing $15 million out of the total project cost, on first impression it seems like the public will at least gain access to additional public spaces, and an attractive and interactive new public space.

Coderre, with typical ringmaster showmanship, boasted to the Gazette that ‘it was an easy decision’ to allocate $15 million in municipal funds to the project, given the ‘major economic impact’ a shiny-new cruise ship terminal will provide the city.

Hard numbers to prove that point might be hard to come by, but what we have (at least as far as cruise ship terminals go) is in pretty rough shape and Provencher Roy’s design is both intriguing and seems to have the public in mind. The new passenger terminal will be modern and designed to permit two ships to dock simultaneously. Passengers will disembark nearer to ground level, traffic will be streamlined, and the terminal located closer to Old Montreal. Public spaces will include the water’s edge park at the end of the pier, in addition to the terminal’s year-round green roof, and possibly an observation tower as well.

I have my doubts renovating the passenger terminal will have a ‘major’ impact on the economy of Montreal in the broad sense, but we can let Denis boast. It looks like a lot of bang for a reasonable amount of buck, and at the end of the day a port city that’s also a major tourist destination should have a proper passenger terminal. That we get more public space to boot isn’t half bad.

I suppose I’m a touch biased. A long time ago I had a weird summer job processing passengers during cruise season. The terminal is well past its prime. I remember the first day I worked at the Iberville Terminal thinking that this must be the first year in decades that any passenger ship had docked in the port. For a moment I was convinced the terminal had only recently been reactivated, as all the workspaces, computers, scanners, tables (etc ad infinitum) we used had been brought in on wheeled carts and set up, apparently, just for this one occasion. I later discovered it was cheaper to rent the requisite equipment and drive it to the docks rather than have to maintain a full-time passenger terminal, considering how few ships docked here at the time. Not having brought a lunch that day, I was quite dismayed to discover the café at the far end of the terminal had evidently not been opened in many years; a thick layer of dust coated the ashtrays left out on the counter.

To say the least, it was odd working there. A quick panic of activity and crowds before the whole place fell back into its more natural state of slow urban decay.

I rather liked it. It seemed fantastically anachronistic, and yet it also felt like I was carrying on in some long tradition of Montreal dock workers too. Naive teenaged romanticism aside, what’s clear enough is the sorry state of the Iberville Terminal and Alexandra Quay as is. It’s virtually a no man’s land throughout most of the year, and there’s nothing really to do there. The quay and terminal complex’s last major renovation dates back fifty years to Expo 67, perhaps ironically at a period in time in which sea travel was becoming, for the masses, quite obsolete. I would say the last time it got a fresh coat of paint may be as long as 24 years ago, when the city celebrated its 350th anniversary.

I quite like the pier as it is because, for the most part, outside of the cruise season it’s essentially abandoned. There’s an ostensibly off-limits look-out at the end of it from which a few tattered flags remain beating against the wind, but other than that it’s one of those places I go in the city to get away from it all and enjoy a moment of silence surrounded by cacophonous city.

I suppose I’ll trek out one more time to enjoy the odd juxtaposition of calm in the midst of so much activity. If this project is completed as conceived, I’ll be glad to soon share this space…

Three-Alarm Fire Nearly Destroys Historic Snowdon Theatre

Snowdon Theatre Fire - March 26th 2016
Snowdon Theatre Fire – March 26th 2016 – credit to Eric Zaidan

That was a close one.

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.

The Cote-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grace (CDN-NDG herein) borough currently owns the building and quietly put it up for sale back in January. They’re accepting bids until May 1st, though all bidders must be able to put up a $10,000 guarantee just to be considered.

Here’s where things get interesting: local journalist Kristian Gravenor filed an access-to-information request last fall to find out what the borough feels are necessary repairs to make the building usable again.

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.

Snowdon Theatre Exit Sign
Snowdon Theatre Exit Sign

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.

The Snowdon Theatre, post-1988 renovation, circa mid-late 1990s
The Snowdon Theatre, post-1988 renovation, circa mid-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.

Contact:

Borough Mayor Russell Copeman

City Councillor Marvin Rotrand

City Councillor Peter McQueen

City Councillor Lionel Perez

City Councillor Magda Popeanu

And on a final note, any Montrealphile with an interest in this city’s once grand collection of ‘movie palaces’ ought to purchase Dane Lanken’s book on the subject post-haste.

Montreal at the Crossroads: 1758

A perspective of Montreal circa. 1758
A perspective of Montreal circa. 1758

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.

Model of Montreal around 1760 (not my own work)
Model of Montreal around 1760 (not my own work)

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.

Montreal street plan by Francois Dollier de Casson, 1672
Montreal street plan by Francois Dollier de Casson, 1672

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.

Place d'Armes - 1828, with the Parish Church and Notre-Dame Basilica standing side-by-side.
Place d’Armes – 1828, with the Parish Church and Notre-Dame Basilica standing side-by-side.

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.

Plan of the Chateau Vaudreuil; this would later become Place Jacques-Cartier
Plan of the Chateau Vaudreuil; this would later become Place Jacques-Cartier

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.

Artist's rendering of the Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours chapel, circa 1680 - credit: Omar Bakar
Artist’s rendering of the Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours chapel, circa 1680 – credit: Omar Bakar

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.

And if you’ve read this far you’re in for a treat: here’s the above map superimposed over a contemporary satellite image. Use the fader in the top-right corner (under link to this page) to transition between the images.

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.

Abandoning the Maison Radio-Canada is as unwise as it is unethical

Maison Radio-Canada, shortly after completion in 1973
Maison Radio-Canada, shortly after completion in 1973

So once upon a time there was a large, densely populated working class neighbourhood just east of Old Montreal informally called the ‘Faubourg à m’lasse’.

The estimate is that in the early 1960s roughly 5,000 people lived there occupying 678 residences, and the neighbourhood would have included about two dozen factories and other industrial operations, not to mention a dozen or so restaurants and grocery stores and all the other services one would expect to find in a typical urban neighbourhood.

It’s highly likely some of those residents would have lived and worked much of their lives within the confines of the district, bounded by René-Lévesque, Wolfe, Papineau and Viger. I doubt it would have been very nice living in this area at the time: there were no green spaces to speak of, the housing likely wouldn’t have been terribly modern and, being as it was located immediately adjacent to the largest inland port in all of North America, it would have been noisy and at times smelly too. The apocryphal history of the area’s informal name indicates that there would have been a strong sent of molasses that permeated much of the neighbourhood, though this may have been confused with the sickly-sweet aroma of yeast used at the nearby Molson brewery. Either way, what was originally called the Faubourg Quebec was first home to the city’s French-Canadian bourgeoisie, though this began to change in the latter decades of the 19th century. Much in the same way that that the Anglophone middle class moved northwesterly from the Shaughnessy Village towards NDG and the West End, over the same period of time the Francophone middle class moved northeasterly out of the Faubourg Quebec, with new waves of urban working class occupying their old neighbourhoods.

The Faubourg à m'lasse, razed. Circa. 1964
The Faubourg à m’lasse, razed. Circa. 1964

By the mid-1950s the neighbourhood had been targeted for ‘revitalization’ by the Dozois Report which aimed to eliminate a wide-variety of urban social ills via expropriation and demolition. Large chunks of the city’s urban environment were to be obliterated entirely so as to ‘clean the slate’ and offer new tracts of land on which to build ostensibly more useful structures. It was reasoned evicting the working classes from their urban neighbourhoods was simply a continuance of established patterns in population movement; the new middle class of the 1950s were moving to outlying suburbs of detached single family homes, and so it was assumed their former urban neighbourhoods would receive those displaced by the evictions. Further, the grander scheme was to make land available for new high-density urban housing (partly realized with Les Habitations Jeanne-Mance), government offices (Hydro-Quebec) and an urban public university (UQAM), all of which was justified in the name of progress and sensible land use and leaves us with a tricky legacy. Thousands of poor people were strong-armed out of their neighbourhoods, the city-centre was radically depopulated and entire communities ceased to exist, but in some cases very useful things wound up occupying those spaces (UQAM and Place des Arts come immediately to mind).

The Dozois Plan not only recommended slum-clearance, but also land-use rationalization and the development of concentrations of activities (commercial sectors, housing sectors, institutional sectors etc.); part of this plan included the idea of a ‘media sector’ where the city’s major broadcasters would concentrate their operations. Jean Drapeau was particularly keen on the idea and proposed the Cité-des-Ondes, a large purpose-built broadcasting centre that would have combined all of Radio-Canada and the CBC’s Montreal operations, in addition to serving as the new corporate headquarters of the national broadcaster.

Two languages, two networks, under one roof.

As it happened, the SRC/CBC was looking to do the same; they had an internal team of architects and planners working on the project at roughly the same time.

Drapeau favoured a location close to the new central business district rising around Gare Central and Windsor Station, but it was during the brief interregnum of Mayor Sarto Fournier that an alternative location further east was decided upon to become the new home of the national broadcaster in Montreal.

Unfortunately, Fournier’s plan called for the expropriation and demolition of the Faubourg à m’lasse in its entirety. At the time I suppose they thought this was progress, though perhaps today we know a little better. From the detailed photographic archives available, it’s clear that though the area may have been poor, it’s hard to believe it was a slum beyond repair and rehabilitation. The ‘slum clearance’ was completed in 1963, with construction of the Maison Radio-Canada taking a decade to complete.

Maison Radio-Canada ca. 1973

It is for precisely this reason I believe both the national broadcaster and the current heritage minister, Mélanie Joly, have an ethical responsibility not only to maintain ownership of the Maison Radio-Canada building, but further to develop the vast parking lots into affordable urban housing.

And wouldn’t you believe it? A plan to do just that was developed a decade ago.

Right now the argument is that there’s a surplus of available space and the building is essentially beyond repair or renovation. The SRC is currently exploring their options, which include: selling the building but continuing to lease space in it, selling it and building a new facility on the same site, selling it and building a new facility elsewhere in the city, or doing the latter but leasing space in an existing building. You’ll notice the common thread and that they’re being quite thorough in considering their options. According to Radio-Canada executive vice-president Louis Lalande, ‘the national broadcaster shouldn’t be in the real-estate business.’

Perhaps… but I’m not convinced building something new or leasing space will ultimately be that cost-effective. The national broadcaster has had its budget slashed repeatedly for years; had this not been the case it’s reasonable to suspect there might not be a $170 million renovation deficit nor the surplus of space. Keep in mind, we’re talking about a building that was built to last with broadcasting in mind and further to serve as a major pole of attraction for the city’s media industry (and on that note, job well done).

In any event, the thought had occurred to me that if the Maison Radio-Canada has a surplus of space, why not go back to the original plan and concentrate the whole SRC/CBC operation in Montreal?

In my eyes this would be the most sensible solution, not to mention potentially the most rewarding. For one, we’d end the senseless linguistic segregation of the national broadcaster. Two, Canadian media would subsequently be less Toronto-centric. Three, the CBC could sell its broadcast centre in Toronto and corporate office in Ottawa, which if I had to guess are both sitting on land far more valuable than the Maison Radio-Canada. Montreal’s cost of living is lower than Toronto’s, which would be a boon to the broadcaster’s employees, and Montreal further benefits from some of the nation’s premier journalism, communications and media production programs.

Seriously, what’s not to love?

I reached out to Radio-Canada with a variety of questions and got a reply from the SRC’s PR director, Marc Pichette.

According to him, combining the CBC and SRC under one roof at the Maison Radio-Canada has “never been an option.”

The rest of the email exchange was disappointing and at times seemed contradictory. I asked if the SRC felt it had a responsibility to the public to maintain the site for public use, and the response was that “…in 2009, following an extensive public consultation, CBC/Radio-Canada signed an agreement with the City of Montréal for the development of the site currently occupied by (the Maison Radio-Canada). This agreement, which lays out the City’s expectation for social and community housing, green spaces and public transit (to name but a few), is still in effect today.”

But in response to a question concerning an old plan to develop mixed-use housing on the site, and whether this was still on the books, Pichette replied that “…this option has been considered in the past. However, the property can hardly be developed without approval of a master development plan for the entire site.”

Okay…

So what’s this then?

Daoust Lestage proposal for MRC, photo-montage ca. 2006
Daoust Lestage proposal for MRC, photo-montage ca. 2006

It seems as though the SRC did come up with a plan to revitalize the Maison Radio-Canada and the parking lots around it about a decade ago. This plan called for the development of the parking lots into mixed-use housing and selling off the tower (for conversion into condominiums) while retaining the base of the structure with all its recently renovated and culturally significant studios.

As François Cardinal writes in this impassioned ‘open letter to Mélanie Joly’, the plan developed by architects Daoust Lestage (and pictured above) would have accomplished several goals, namely: integrate the structure into the surrounding residential area, build new housing on the parking lots, keep the SRC in the same spot and do all this while also selling the surplus tower.

The sale of the tower would in turn pay for the construction of a new office space better integrated into its surroundings and in accordance with their now smaller space requirements.

As Cardinal notes in his La Presse report, the Daoust Lestage proposal would have led to the creation of a large new urban neighbourhood and would have become the ‘eastern door’ to Montreal’s central business district.

It should be noted that the Daoust Lestage plan dates from 2006; the entire Faubourg Quebec has seen nothing but growth since then. Consider the new CHUM superhospital, the successful rehabilitation of the Gare Viger or the reclamation of former port lands for new medium density residential housing. The Daoust Lestage plan for the Maison Radio-Canada could add housing for thousands more in a part of town that has suffered from depopulation for far too long (see their presentation here).

And yet, despite this, the SRC is sticking to its guns. Pichette replied to Cardinals’ open letter by indicating that years of budget cuts, the 2008-09 economic collapse and the digitization of media has contributed to the SRC reviewing their space requirements and that the Daoust Lestage plan was far, far larger than what they currently need.

And that’s unfortunately quite myopic. From Pichette’s reply to Cardinal (and myself), it would seem that the Société Radio-Canada is more concerned with the per annum bottom line than any bold plan to make good use of its real-estate assets, or what future space requirements might look like if the Fed were to invest some serious coin and bring the national broadcaster back to the ‘glory days’ of the 1960s and 1970s.

Which is what brings this all back to Mélanie Joly. Her predecessors under the Harper administration were always quick to mention the national broadcaster was an ‘arms-length crown corporation’ and therefore not the responsibility of the ministry. There’s hope the Trudeauites may actually take some responsibility for their ministerial portfolios. As heritage minister, Joly is directly responsible for Canadian heritage, media, arts and culture.

And the Maison Radio-Canada is an indelible part of all those things.

There are other options than simply walking away from a purpose-built broadcasting centre and abandoning it to the free-market, and the SRC has already spent millions of taxpayers dollars coming up with a sensible plan to breathe new life into an ascendant sector of the city. Joly should consider that option at the very least.

Walking away from the Maison Radio-Canada is thoroughly unethical given 5,000 people lost their community in order to see it built, and it doesn’t matter that the obliteration of the Faubourg à m’lasse happened more than fifty years ago. As far as I’m concerned, if land is expropriated for public purposes, then it should remain in the public’s hands.

A Thousand Words for this City in Time

Aerial perspective of the City of Montreal, ca. 1963 - Archives de Montréal
Aerial perspective of the City of Montreal, ca. 1962 РArchives de Montr̩al

I don’t know for certain but I’m guessing this shot was taken in the summer of 1962 or 1963.

It fascinates me because it shows our city at a crucial moment of transition.

Look closely at this photograph and think about what you don’t see.

No Bonaventure Expressway. No Ville Marie Expressway. No Métro. No Expo. No Tour de la Bourse nor Chateau Champlain.

And consider what you do see. Large neighbourhoods now lost to time; the Red Light, Griffintown, Goose Village, Faubourg à m’lasse.

This is Montreal right before the slum clearance gets thrown into full swing, before the era of the wrecking ball. Les Habitations Jeanne-Mance has already been built but despite it’s arguable success as a housing project, would never be replicated in our city. There were many other massive, somewhat utopian housing projects intended for downtown Montreal, but the few that were ultimately realized, like Habitat 67, would wind up condos auctioned off to the highest bidder.

For many this was not a particularly good time to live in Montreal, even if the economy was arguably stronger and there were greater local opportunities. For far too many, this photo is of a moment right before mass expropriations and the intentional destruction of urban neighbourhoods in the presumed name of progress.

Dorchester Boulevard has been widened by this point and serves notice of the next phase of apparent urban renewal – the highways. You can see the blacktop cutting a nice wide swath through the downtown, reminiscent of the Lachine Canal further south – neat and boxy, the next commercial artery. Dorchester was widened at the expense of its former estates and grand churches throughout the 1950s, expanded from a quiet and meandering tree-lined residential street into a stately minor highway.

The construction of the Bonaventure, Decarie and Ville Marie expressways further hampered the livability of the city for a considerable period of time, and we’re fortunate that there are plans in place to a) eliminate the Bonaventure expressway viaduct downtown and b) continue covering over the Ville Marie. In time we can only hope the remaining exposed sections of urban highway that have so thoroughly divided the city are eliminated as barriers. It’s a crucial component of our city’s urban rehabilitation.

This is Montreal at a crossroads. The end of the North American colonial metropolis, the beginnings of both the international and the self-conscious city.

The city you’re looking at was much smaller, geographically, than it is today, and when this photo was taken in 1962 the city’s population was only about 1.2 million people. The population of Montreal would grow to nearly 1.3 million people by mid-decade, but then depopulated by about 300,000 people over the course of the next thirty years. The population of Montreal didn’t surpass the high water mark of 1966 until 2006, and only as a result of the municipal reorganization and forced annexations of some populous on-island suburbs.

The reason I point this out is because this photograph represents the kind of built environment that developed to accommodate a city population that was once far more tightly packed at its core.

Consider this. Were you to get in an airplane and fly to the same spot today and take another photograph and compare the two, you’d see there were once many more buildings in this city, though today we have many more tall and otherwise large buildings occupying massive pieces of urban real estate. In the photo above you see a downtown where commerce, retail, residences, industries and institutions existed practically one atop another. Today you’d see a largely corporate sector that in some respects has very little to do with what Montreal actually is. Industry and residential areas have been pushed to the periphery.

Zooming in you can see Montreal’s downtown was once filled with a great variety of smaller office buildings, not to mention traditional triplexes, in places we no longer associate with small businesses or neighbourhoods. Much of the human scale architecture, the fundamentals of city-building, was gutted in the name of civic improvement, and worse, was done so in an area of exceptional architectural variety and vitality.

But such as it is, it’s history. What’s done is done. We would be wise not to develop our city so haphazardly and inconsiderately in the future.

Now, all that said…

Looking at this photograph I also see just how far we’ve come. In the thirty years after this photo was taken downtown Montreal transformed into a massive parking lot and the urban vitality of the city suffered. All too often whole blocks were wiped out before the intended replacement project had even gained funding (Overdale immediately comes to mind). Complexe Guy-Favreau, as an example, was an open pit for much of the 1970s. At one point the intersection of McGill College and Boul. de Maisonneuve was four parking lots and the Champ de Mars was a parking lot too (before someone had the bright idea to turn it back into a commanding public green and local historical site). Demolition teams tore strips through the cityscape to install Métro lines and highways, obliterating nearly everything in their paths with no concern paid to the negative effects it would have on local livability.

We don’t develop like this anymore, and it seems as though a lot of recent attention – broadly speaking over the course of the last twenty years or so – has been placed on rehabilitation and rejuvenation, both of the core and the first ring suburbs (like NDG, St. Henri, the Shaughnessy Village, Plateau and Mile End).

There’s no doubt in my mind Montreal is a superior city to live in today than at any point since this photo was taken. The city has more to offer its citizens today than it ever has, and I hope we soon start to realize this. For as great as past achievements may have been, they do not compare to what our accrued potential has made us capable of.

Monsieur le Maire, Tear Down this… Railing?

Community Housing, Montreal - Spring 2014

I don’t really know what to call that metal bar running along the edge of the property pictured above, but I’m pretty sure I know what it represents.

I snapped this pic in Saint Henri but if you live in this city you’ve doubtless seen these pseudo fences elsewhere. They typically run just along the edge of a given property, though providing none of the privacy of a normal fence. The buildings inside the rail are always sullen looking, worn out and cheap. Unless I’m gravely mistaken, from what I’ve seen and heard, these rails not-so-subtly announce the presence of subsidized housing.

If this really is the case, I’d like to know what the justification is. Perhaps it’s nothing more than a decorative element from a bygone era that serves no real purpose. If so, all the more reason to remove them. It’s not a fence, it offers no privacy nor added security. In every instance I’ve ever seen one of these they always look ugly – a half-hearted and half-assed rusting attempt at decoration that makes cutting the grass around it unnecessarily difficult.

And if in most cases these bars do indeed surround city or provincially-owned low-rent housing, all the more reason to remove them completely and replace them with a proper fence.

How is it beneficial to point out subsidized real-estate in a given neighbourhood? How does it benefit the residents, either of the building in question or those who live around it?

It seems to me it would be more advantageous for everyone concerned not to draw attention to subsidized housing, so as to allow it to blend in seamlessly with the surrounding environs.

So please Monsieur le Maire – tear down these eyesores.

I’m sure there’s some money to be made scrapping the metal.