A loyal reader posted this photograph in response to a question about where one can find archival street scenes of Montreal. The McCord Museum has the famed Notman collection, which provides an incredibly fascinating glimpse into the lives of Montrealers, and what their city looked like, around the turn the 20th century.
Notman was king instagrammer of his time, in a certain way of thinking.
The photo above is of His Majesty’s Theatre, once the city’s premier theatre and host to some of the city’s first major opera companies and regular performances of chamber music. It had a capacity for 1750 people and two balconies, and over time would host a wide variety of performers, including Sergei Rachmaninoff and Paul Robeson.
Now can you guess where this important landmark once stood?
Just up from Saint Catherine’s on the east side of Guy. I don’t know whether this was done on purpose, though I have a feeling it was, but you’ll notice that the facade of Concordia’s EV building seems to mimic the facade of the former theatre. His Majesty’s Theatre was demolished in 1963, around the same time pretty much everything else up Guy was ripped up as Boul. de Maisonneuve was created on top of the new Métro line.
In any event I thought it was at the very least a neat coincidence.
But what really struck me about the photo on top was the trees.
Big badass oaks and elms and maples growing taller than most triplexes, and enough of them to make it seem as though some roads disappear off into the woods.
Many Notman photos have this arboreal quality about them. Streets as diverse as Saint Denis, Sherbrooke, Saint Catherine’s, the former Dorchester (now René-Lévesque) boulevards etc. were once all lined with mature, impressive trees. Parc Avenue was apparently so well forested the great limbs intertwined over the street to provide a kind of canopy that could protect you from even the most torrential of downpours.
I look out my back window onto the alley, a typical Saint Henri alleyway, with trees climbing ever skyward, dwarfing the brownstones below them. In winter I can see to the end of the block. In summer I can’t see further than the end of my building, for everything else is masked in green.
Today there are parts of the city where great trees will likely never grow again, for large buildings stacked too close together block out necessary sunlight. Even on a street as wide as McGill College, the trees planted twenty years ago are all sickly looking; many have been removed outright.
I think we’d be wise to take a long look at these old photos and ask ourselves whether we could afford to be a little greener. Not just for aesthetics, there are practical reasons to want to do this, chief among them to increase the quality of the air we breathe and to provide a bulwark against seasonal flooding. Each tree, each patch of green acting like a sponge and a vent at the same time.
Perhaps our city needs to be reforested…