So just how old is this city, really?
We talk a lot about the city’s history and architectural heritage, of its old world charm. And of course we know that the city was founded by the Kingdom of France in 1642.
It may surprise you to learn that much of our historic architecture isn’t actually that old; there are very few 17th century buildings left on the island of Montréal.
The remnants of the Fort de la Montagne date back to 1694 and can still be found today on the grounds of the Collège de Montréal at Fort and Sherbrooke. These were long believed to be the oldest buildings in Montréal, but new evidence suggests that parts of the Sulpician Seminary adjacent to Notre Dame Basilica (1829) actually date back to 1687, though much of what remains today would have been integrated into a large renovation which occurred in 1710.
These would be the two oldest remaining structures within urban core of Montréal, but recent civic amalgamations have brought the single oldest inhabitable building on the entire island into the fold. The LeBer-LeMoyne House sits here at the intersection of LaSalle and Lachine by the western tip of the Lachine Canal. It dates to 1671 and is a national historic site owing to its importance in the development of the fur trade.
Further west, parts of the remnants of Fort Senneville may date from 1692 when the French Governor rebuilt the original 1671 construction, itself destroyed by fire, but this is difficult to ascertain given how little is actually left. Last I heard there were parts of a stone windmill and parts of the foundation.
In Pointe-St-Charles you’ll find the Maison Saint-Gabriel a farm house dating from 1698 which had been used by the Congrégation Notre Dame as a school, among other things, back in the French Colonial Era.
Chateau Ramezay, across the street from the Hotel-de-Ville (1878, rebuilt in 1922) dates back to 1705 with certainty, as its regal and political importance kept it very much in use until it was developed into one of the city’s first public heritage and cultural sites. The Chateau competes with the Sulpician Seminary as the oldest continually used, continuously important, building.
But this is about it. Old Montréal and the Old Port dates primarily to the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Historic properties in the Golden Square Mile, Shaugnessy Village, Saint Henri, Westmount, Mile End and Plateau are roughly as old.
We lack buildings from much of the 18th century thanks to a series of fires which destroyed the city several times over the course of that century. By the early 1800s new fire-prevention measures had been implemented, including the use of tin shingles in lieu of cedar (a point honoured in the mural at McGill Station, near the words ‘La Sauvegarde’). The pre-Confederation part of the 19th century witnessed a revival in ‘Habitant’ architecture dating back to the mid-17th century (in design and materials used) among local architects, while American and British firms worked on larger public constructions, such as the Bonsecours Market (1847) and Saint Patrick’s Basilica (1847) and the original Parliament Building (destroyed by a Tory mob in 1849 and today the location of a converted fire hall at Place d’Youville. In 1815 the old fortifications were torn down, allowing the city to begin expanding outward. In this sense, everything you consider to be city outside of Old Montreal has really only been in use for about two-hundred years, though most of the buildings were built in the last half-century.
That said we nonetheless have a few 18th century examples remaining, including the Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours Chapel (otherwise known as the Sailor’s Cathedral) built in 1771 on the ruins of another church. There also still stands the Papineau House, built in 1785.
Rue de la Frippone owes its name to the Old French government warehouse that once stood on the site, as the government officials would habitually fleece the stocks for their own use. Thus, cheat street.
I can imagine there may be some old treasures lost about Rue Saint-Paul, Rue Saint-Jean-Baptiste, Saint-Gabriel and Saint-Francois-Xavier as well, but the prevalence of ‘heritage design’ in the 19th century makes it a difficult task to ascertain just how old something actually is.
Suffice it to say, what we generally consider to be the ‘architecturally significant’ old part of the city is only about 100-160 years old, not terribly representative of our nearly 400 year local history. In effect, the most tangible reminder of our colonial era is a system of roads laid down by surveyor Dollier de Casson back in the late-17th century.
I drew my inspiration for this article from a City of Montreal tourist guidebook I have that was published around 1900 or so (photographs illustrating this article were scanned form it). Imagine that when this book was published, much of what is now considered to be the historic old city was then very new and very much in use. In fact you likely would have found many more older structures outside Vieux-Montréal back then, ironically enough, as this was then the city centre, and between 1880 and 1930 the focus of a massive redevelopment.
In this book it discusses what would have been the oldest structures in the city back at the turn of the 20th century, and as you might imagine the aforementioned examples are included. However it also suggests that a building on Rue Saint-Vincent may have once belonged to Monsieur De Catalogne, contractor of the Lachine Canal of 1700. The building here in white may be that house. There’s another on Rue Saint-Louis which also looks quite old, an odd small single-family home on a comparatively large plot near the municipal courthouse.
I think we’re well positioned to maintain a considerable portion of what currently exists in Vieux-Montréal, which will be far more impressive and significant at the end of this century. If we want to keep this rather pristine jewel of Ancien Regime based late-Victorian cityscape we’ll have to maintain (if not increase) the local population, introduce new services (both commercial and civic) and facilitate a renewal of purpose for the citizenry at large. Better public transit access wouldn’t hurt either, but options are limited (for better or for worse) to a re-introduction of trams. My understanding is that the ground might not be stable enough to permit Métro access further south than the Orange Line, but of course if trams were introduced they’d need to operate as independently of vehicular traffic as possible. It would be very much in keeping with the style and design of Vieux-Montréal if we were to re-introduce trams on Rue de la Commune, Notre-Dame, and Saint-Antoine with intersecting lines at Berri, Saint-Urbain, McGill and Peel, connecting to Berri-UQAM, Place-d’Armes & Place-des-Arts, Square-Victoria, Bonaventure & Peel respectively.
It’s a high concentration of transit in a small but high-traffic area and to secure a greater range of service optimization it may be worthwhile to focus it on a kind of site-specific transit system optimized for the entirety of the Old Port, Old Montreal, Griffintown, Goose Village and Cité-du-Havre/Parc Jean-Drapeau. It would make a lot of sense to people – when you’re in the old part of town you use a trams, an ‘old’ yet still practical form of public transit. And who knows, design it well enough and we may create something truly fitting, wondrously appropriate and efficient as well aesthetically pleasing. It could be a big hit.
But this itself is predicated on the notion that Old Montreal could be more valuable if it were a more viable place to live. We’d be wise not to build modern or post-modern residential towers here, but revisit the style that remains. I’d like to see the few remaining vacant lots filled with new versions of classic Montreal Beaux-Arts architecture, as well as some building variety as well – a good portion of Griffintown already feels too much like a series of large warehouses converted into horizontal apartments; throwing in some classic small-scale buildings could help solidify the rustic charm of our former frontier town. I said before we’re well positioned – interest in this area is generally high even if it’s localized economy is currently too negatively impacted by moderate drops in annual tourist revenue. Adding more people and the means for a viable community to form would help counter this problem, and would add the possibility for multi-generational investment in heritage properties. Fill up the vacant spaces with the buildings required to create a community and ensure the design fits, and then give it its purpose-built mass-transit system and Vieux-Montréal would transform from tourism hub to neighbourhood – a place where one comes from as opposed to a place one merely visits.
It’s not just that we want to preserve old buildings, function must be preserved as well.
Montréal doesn’t just have a collection of old buildings, we have an old city, an antique urbanism. And it’s viability and utility to the metropolis (for it could be an obscenely wealthy neighbourhood to boot) is tied quite directly to careful planning from City Hall. And this is because we expect the city to, if nothing else, at least preserve the historic built environment, that has now for several generations made every Montrealer feel like they come from a place truly different and distinguished.