With the historic, park-like square returned to its verdant former glory, the vista and the vibe are “clean and green,” beamed Dutch tourist Ron Walther, who, with his wife, Monique Walther, was among the first to soak in and enjoy the results.
They’ll be far from the last.
The public this week quickly and avidly reclaimed the reborn square, to luxuriate in an attractive city-core oasis of green grass on modest new hillocks, stately shade trees and inviting spots to sit on benches or on the ground. The latter once again provide a favoured fair-weather lunchtime-picnic sojourn for area office workers, along with other passersby including the city’s homeless.
Square users had been shut out by fencing since early last summer, as new lighting, benches, flower beds and turf were installed, along with granite walkways that will provide secure footing whether “wet or dry,” said city spokesman Philippe Sabourin. The official first shovelful of dirt to begin the aboveground part of the project was hefted July 8, 2009.
The overhaul’s full cost was $9.6 million, divided 50-50 between the city and Quebec, and Sabourin said it came in on budget.
A primary goal was “to improve the conviviality of the urban space,” according to a historic-detail-packed strategic plan completed in 2002 governing conduct of the project in tandem with the restoration of Place du Canada, on the southern side of René Lévesque Blvd. That traffic artery had long been named Dorchester before it was re-baptized to honour René Lévesque, Quebec’s first sovereignist premier, on his death.
As a consequence, the square – long ago an Anglo-Scottish bastion lined with no less than seven churches, four of them Presbyterian – officially lost its long-time “Dominion” moniker Nov. 30, 1987, with the Dorchester name recycled. (A panorama of the square is here.)
The facelift includes renewal of a variety of historic monuments of unmistakable imperial Victorian flavour, where spectacular evening lighting will be turned on “in the next couple of days,” once electrical hookups are completed, Sabourin said.
This rebirth “will bring back life in this area that was really needed,” said Robert Spiridigliozzi.
Along with Dina Spiridigliozzi, his mother, he has operated the Café Buongiorno sandwich-and-snacks spot in the park for the past 12 years, close to the Infotouriste office in the Dominion Square Building that serves as a mecca for camera-toting visitors and their tour buses.
When the Spiridigliozzis started their café – amid plenty of talk but no visible municipal action, the son said – “the square was deteriorating.” It featured ever more patchy pavement and dirt pathways worn into the grass, often giving rise to wind-borne blowing grit.
Ultimately, though, “they did a really good job,” Spiridigliozzi enthused. “Everything was delivered the way they said it would be.
“I’m happy to see it back – I’m sure it’s going to do well.”
However, he added, “I just hope they are going to take care of it.”
Sabourin, a central-city official, said regular maintenance will be handled by the Ville Marie borough within its current budget.
“It’s a great improvement and somehow not only for the gracious restoration of the lawns and pathways but truly for the dignity of this remarkable but fallen space,” said Dinu Bumbaru, policy director of Heritage Montreal.
He focussed on the “appropriately sophisticated design, good material and special care (taken) for the very special nature of the square,” which is roughly at the mid-point between the St. Lawrence River and Mount Royal Park.
The Place du Canada section to the square’s south, given that name in 1966, is the next to be tackled for a similar rebirth. Archaeological digs – similar to those that contributed to some of the length of the Dorchester Square makeover – are scheduled for next spring and summer, with landscaping to be finished for a projected reopening by the end of 2012. That work will carry a $13.4-million price tag.
The Walthers – tourists from Maastricht, the Netherlands, on a one-day Montreal stopover – already knew from their Dutch-language guidebook of the site’s old bones, its long-time former vocation as the city’s second Roman Catholic cemetery.
The footprint of the square and Place du Canada largely overlay the boundaries of the St. Antoine Cemetery, which provided not-so-final resting places for an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 Montrealers buried between 1799 and 1854. The interred include cholera victims who perished in epidemics during 1832, 1834, 1849, 1852 and 1854. Many, but not all, of the dead were relocated during the 1860s to the Notre Dame des Neiges Cemetery on Mount Royal.
“I don’t find this spooky at all,” grinned Monique Walther, 38, when asked about the many bones likely still resting directly beneath her. She’d been relaxing on one of the square’s 80 new benches while her camera-toting hubby grabbed dramatic frames of a rearing Boer War horse and accompanying Canadian soldier against the backdrop of the Sun Life Building.
“The attention paid to the monuments and replacement of trees is great,” said Bumbaru, who participated in the advisory committee for the overhaul and delivered “a great bravo for the city, its professional teams and those of the consortium of designers Cardinal Hardy and (landscape architect) Claude Cormier, as well as for the tradesmen – who did a great job.”
Square user Monique Walther, meanwhile, was much more focussed on the square’s colourful centrepiece of freshly planted geraniums, arrayed in red and pink around the restored war monument paying engraved homage to “the cause of imperial unity.”
“I just love the flowers,” she said.
In July, according to Sabourin, the finishing touch will be added – a series of benches arrayed in a circle around the square’s history-laden centrepiece. (A historical photo gallery of square is here.)
“It’s time,” Bumbaru said, “for Montrealers and visitors – and squirrels too – to enjoy it and keep good care of this beautiful square.”
----------Go to the park , have a siesta for an hour or so........................HF&RV