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.
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.
If it weren’t for the fact that it’s apparently a great excuse for a lot of infrastructure spending, would anyone really care about the 375th anniversary of the founding of Ville Marie, which will coincide with the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017? Are these dates important to us for any other reason than that politicians can use them as focal points?
Note: the plan is only expected to be completed by 2017, there’s no word on any specific projects or what, if anything, might actually be improved/renovated by then. Moreover, it’s not entirely clear either what precisely needs to be done in the first place.
Also worth noting, though this CBC article seems to have missed the point, is that the Old Port does not actually belong to the City of Montreal, but to Canada Lands Corporation through the Old Port of Montreal Corporation. Ergo, while Montreal may be interested in developing the Old Port, the Fed is still ultimately responsible and they have no interest in ceding ownership of the land to the city. Mayor Coderre has argued that it’s vital for Montreal to take ownership of the Old Port in order to fully realize it’s revitalization.
As far as renovating the Old Port is concerned, the last time there was a significant investment was 24 years ago when Montreal was celebrating its 350th anniversary.
Since 2012 the operating agency has spent $14 million on new installations and activities, though the general manager of this same agency called the Old Port ‘tattered’ in a Montreal Gazette interview from a few days ago. An investment of $125 million back in the early 1990s gave the Old Port its modern form after the area spent much of the 1980s as a bit of a no-man’s land.
Just to be clear on what we’re talking about, the Old Port is a very specific part of Montreal. It essentially consists of the long linear park running immediately south of Rue de la Commune, as well as Windmill Point and the four principle quays. Everything north of de la Commune is Old Montreal, and as things go in this city, despite the intimate relationship between these two sectors they administratively have nothing to do with one-another.
Why the Old Port needs to be ‘renovated, rejuvenated and revitalized’ doesn’t seem to be clear either. For the six million or so tourists who visit it every year, there doesn’t seem to be much complaining: it’s a park with various attractions next to the city’s premier tourist destination; what’s not to like? And either way last week’s public consultation wasn’t about what tourists want, it was about what we want.
I had registered to go and say something but then decided not to when I realized the crux of my argument – as a Montrealer – was that the last thing the Old Port needs more of is tourists or tourist-attractions. It seemed counter-intuitive to me as I can’t imagine this is what the operating agency wants to hear. They want to make money, point finale.
I’d argue strongly the investments made in the last few years – notably the beach you can’t swim at, the zip-line, haunted house and pirate-themed jungle gym – are all terrible and not worth the money spent on them. Moreover, I’m fairly certain these ‘attractions’ were only brought in after public consultations and/or market research indicated the Old Port was lacking in things to do. They all feel like the terrible ideas only a group of otherwise unemployable market research study participants can come up with.
From a completely historical point of view, even calling it the Old Port seems misleading: the new attractions have absolutely nothing to do with the area’s history and the entire space has a decidedly modern feel to it. Jacques Cartier did not zip-line his way into Montreal in 1534, we’ve never had a serious pirate problem and, if we do have a haunted house in Montreal, my guess is that it’s probably one of the places where CIA-funded mind control experiments were conducted, and not an assembly of brightly coloured former shipping containers.
If the Old Port has a serious problem, it’s that it’s trying way too hard to be all things to all people, again, another problem stemming from public consultations.
I’m generally indifferent to all the Old Port’s crap because I know I’ll never be involved with it. I’m never going to buy any of the overpriced tchotchkes, knock-off handbags or t-shirts that say ‘Federal Breast Inspector’ on them from the spaced-out teenagers sitting in the nifty new container kiosks. Nor will I ever dine in the Old Port, given the food is overpriced and of low quality; this is a gourmand’s city, something which is not reflected in the Old Port or much of Old Montreal for that matter. I think I’ve been in the Old Port well over a hundred times in the last decade and I don’t think I’ve spent more than $20 in that entire time.
I also don’t think I’m alone. As far as I can tell, most Montrealers in the know know better than to waste their money in our city’s various tourist traps. And the Old Port is the biggest tourist trap we have.
Now all that said, I still thoroughly enjoy going to the Old Port, and will continue to do so regardless of whatever the city or Canada Lands Corporation comes up with. It’s a big space, there’s only so much damage they can do. The best parts of the Old Port, at least in my opinion, are either technically off limits or otherwise far from its central and most touristy part. There’s a look-out at the end of Alexandra Quay that offers amazing views of the city an the river, not to mention the grounds around Silo No. 5, which actually look like there was once a park located there that’s been since closed off to the public.
Assuming the majority of Montrealers do indeed agree the Old Port is ‘in tatters’ then why not just do the simple thing and fix it up? Fresh paint, new uni-stone, update the landscaping, improve the lighting. Whenever I go to the Old Port, this is typically what I notice first and foremost.
I feel there’s a prevalent belief in this city that we need to reinvent the wheel all the time, and that we won’t be truly happy with our city until it’s completely unrecognizable but teaming with tourists.
Obviously this isn’t what we want. If the powers that be want to best represent the interests of the citizenry, perhaps they should consider how Montrealers typically use the most successful of our public spaces (on top of what makes them so successful in the first place). Consider: the tam-tams are completely spontaneous and the city isn’t involved one iota. Most of Mount Royal Park is attraction-less and most Montrealers seem to be able to enjoy the mountain without having to spend much money. The lookouts are free, the trails are free, lying in the sun is free (etc.)
Rather than occupying public space in the Old Port with activities and attractions, why not just leave it open and accessible and let people figure it out for themselves?
On a closing note, I really hope they don’t do anything with Silo No. 5 – it’s a monument in its own right, and fascinating to explore. My main concern at this point is that CLC through the Old Port of Montreal Corporation will either try to redevelop the site into condos or some kind of half-assed attraction (like that virtual-reality thingamajig that was up and running for a few years on Sainte Catherine Street near McGill College… I think it’s a watch store or a Five Guys now).
Second closing point: though it’s outside the realm of the Old Port, I’d argue the single best thing the city could possibly do is to convert Bonsecours Market back into a public market (à la Atwater or Maisonneuve markets) and – by extension – use the market as a transiting point between Old Montreal and the Old Port. I think this would entail ‘opening up’ the Rue de la Commune side of the Bonsecours, such as with vendor stalls and additional doorways (etc.), but the point is if we want these tourist-driven parts of the city to still be attractive to locals, we need to offer a little more of what makes Montreal such an exquisite city in the first place. I’m sure the 3,000 or so citizens who live in the area would certainly appreciate access to a proper market, and the tourists would have better dining options (at least) as a result.
I snapped the photo above in Place Jacques Cartier a few days back. It is a fire pit, one of several located near Rue de la Commune and intended to provide a place to warm up for all those out enjoying the many and diverse activities on-going throughout the Old Port and Old Montreal this winter. It was a quaint scene, doubtless intended to remind tourists of our hearty Colonial past. Nearby, a calèche driver enrobed in a buffalo hide stood next to his massive, steaming steed, educating passersby that his was the original Uber. Adirondack chairs of fresh-cut pine surrounded the flaming hearths. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves.
While the ban is still two years off, I was a touch perplexed. This was all happening within eyesight of City Hall and both major parties seem to be really gung-ho on expediting the ban. Wouldn’t they have at least thought about ensuring there aren’t any fire pits at public events in the lead-up? What kind of message does this send to the people? Are they bad for the environment or can fireplaces distinguish between private use and public? Perhaps burning wood emits less particulate in the context of being decorations to support our tourism industry?
Banning things is, unfortunately, just about the only thing municipal and provincial governments seem to be good at these days. In addition to the fireplace ban, the province recently decided to ban cigarettes from outdoor patios and e-cigarettes from anywhere indoors. E-cigarettes, by their very definition, do not involve any burning tobacco whatsoever.
The bans are all intended to improve air quality and make us healthier, but they’re illogical when put in context of what’s causing far, far worse air pollution. Even if everyone in Montreal decided to light up a smoke and their fireplaces simultaneously, the pollution still wouldn’t even come close to what’s produced by all the cars, trucks, busses and airplanes going in and out of our city every single day. You and everyone else living in this city could get cracking on being pack-a-day smokers for the rest your lives and it will wouldn’t come close.
This type of legislation tends to get near unanimous approval from other politicians and, even though people do grumble and complain these bans are invasive and unnecessary, it’s unlikely public opposition will be so strong there’ll be any street protests.
In other words, it’s a safe bet everyone will go along with the plan and whomever’s in power looks like they’re doing something productive.
Banning cars and trucks, no matter how effective a solution to the air-quality and smog problem, would be political suicide. So that’s not going to happen.
In the end, what we really need is the political will to secure massive investments in public transit, like a new light-rail system and (not or) a major expansion of the Métro.
It would also be great if all the highway trenches were covered over too, given much of our local smog is generated by ground-up salt and sand used to clear the streets after snowstorms. Covering over the Decarie and Ville-Marie Expressways wouldn’t just ensure they’d be permanently clear and unaffected by the elements, but further wouldn’t require snow clearance. And the exhaust within can be sucked out and cleaned too.
But in order for any of this to be possible, we have to get comfortable with the knowledge small, bandaid feel-good solutions won’t do an iota of good to improve our local environment and cut down on smog.
The idea that your fireplace is a major contributor to environmental degradation is, apparently, not even really taken seriously by whichever city department was responsible for setting up these hearths.
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.