Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Wrecking Ball Active on 'The Main'

The block of heritage buildings being demolished next to the Monument National on St. Laurent Blvd. must be preserved. This is an urgent matter: Montreal and the province of Quebec stand to lose an essential part of their cultural identity.

These buildings belong to the extraordinary group of Romanesque Revival buildings on the Main between Viger Ave. and Guilbault Sts. They form a pioneering and vigorous example of late-19th-century Montreal’s modernism and popular culture. At the heart of that era’s transformation was a raging competition between the two founding nations of our modern metropolis.

Between 1885 and 1890, the west side of St. Laurent was widened. The French Canadians illustrated their ambitions between Viger Ave. and Ste. Catherine St. with the construction of major buildings on every block. Among them, the Monument National embodied the nationalist feelings of francophones in Montreal and throughout North America. North of Ste. Catherine, the Main eventually became a channel for multi-ethnic immigration, with newcomers streaming into every block, each according to their culture.

Montreal’s population had become predominantly francophone around 1860, fuelling the creation of new institutions that spread from the old neighbourhoods to settle in the new city at the foot of the mountain where Mount Royal Park was inaugurated in 1876. It was a glorious time. Newspapers flourished: the Montreal Star appeared in 1877, followed by La Patrie and La Presse between 1879 and 1884. A Catholic cathedral, Mary Queen of the World, was built between 1870 and 1889, near the new Grand Trunk and Canadian Pacific Railway stations.

In 1879, the anglophones formed the Montreal Art Association, forerunner of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. That was followed by the Redpath Museum (1882) and the Mechanics’ Institute (1885).

The francophones built Collège Mont Saint-Louis in 1887, and the Monument National was created between 1891 and 1894 by the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste to promote French Canadians’ linguistic, scientific, business and artistic aspirations.

The architectural heritage of the Main, and in particular its greystone commercial buildings, is a testament to the energy of that era. The row of Romanesque Revival buildings on the west side of St. Laurent was inspired by the language and ideas of the American architect Henry Hobson Richardson, a dominant figure in North American architecture. His masterpiece was the Marshall Field Wholesale Store in Chicago, built between 1885 and 1887, which was the pinnacle of commercial architecture of its age. Richardson’s great creative achievement was his interplay of fullness versus emptiness, with windows complemented by great arches that unified the building vertically.

In Montreal, the architects Daoust and Gendron designed most of the “Richardsonian” buildings along St. Laurent Blvd., making use of the same principles. Their first project was the Robillard Building at 972-976 St. Laurent. Built in 1889, only two years after the Marshall Field Warehouse, this structure featured two immense three-storey arches.

Next, in 1890, came the impressive Brunet building at 1074-1084 St. Laurent, with four side-to-side arches. In the same year they built the Drapeau & Savignac building at 1068-1072 St. Laurent. In 1892, Théo Daoust designed the Baxter Block at 3660-3712 St. Laurent, an astonishing group of 28 commercial spaces whose original design even included a theatre at the corner of Guilbault St., south of Pine Ave.

Despite the losses, negligence and errors of the recent past, St. Laurent Blvd. remains a powerful symbol of Montreal’s identity and a true witness to the origins of our modern society. It is also an important architectural treasure that puts historical value in perspective. We cannot let the ensemble of the boulevard disappear, leaving the Monument National to stand as a solitary relic, stripped of its context.

Given the massive public investment in the revitalization of the Quartier des Spectacles, to abandon the remarkable architectural treasures spanning St. Laurent represents an unacceptable step backward for Montreal and Québécois culture, which, thanks to the noble efforts of its citizens, now has a solid cultural and sustainable vision of development.

The greystone buildings in these blocks, including the heritage facades that are being demolished on the Main next to the Monument National, must be preserved.

The restoration of this group of buildings should be a starting point for any future development of this neighbourhood, and this condition must be guaranteed publicly in writing by both the city of Montreal and the government of Quebec.

Dinu Bumbaru is policy director of Héritage Montréal

Phyllis Lambert is founding director and chair of the board of trustees of the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal.

..........................................................................................................................................................................hf&rv - Les


Les F said...

I wonder why they don't just designate that when redevelopment goes on,that they have to incorporate the 'facade' into the new building. They do that a lot in many other cities,here in Victoria bC they saved a lot of frontage of buildings to keep that old look,but inside the structures are newer .......simple to do,but a little more costly.
Montreal it seems has no plan,nor do they want to preserve anything .Unless an outcry from the public & even then some of city's planners just allow demos to take place. A lot of property owners also,just allow their own buildings to rot & fall into disrepair,to a point where demolition is the only final answer.I know you cannot save everything,but you can at least try to maintain the theme that a city had .If we didn't protect things at all,we would all be looking at glass & concrete structures with really 'no character' & that is what Montreal & many other city's have that makes them unique.....(jmho) - Les

Les F said...

Saint-Laurent Boulevard - “The Main”
Montréal, Quebec

Out-of-town visitors and Montréalers alike all feel the pull of The Main.

There is the culinary Main—where you go for a rib steak (Moishe’s), smoked meat sandwich (Schwartz’s), and a “steamie” (Montréal Pool Room) and the retail Main, for bargain hunters and hip young dressers. There is the cultural Main—for tango, salsa and African dancers, film and theatre goers. The Main that offers attractions of an earlier time—burlesque clubs, steam baths, social clubs and park squares—can also be found. And finally, there is The Main, a great walking street, bustling with people, business and life.

The Main—officially called Saint-Laurent Boulevard or Boulevard
Saint-Laurent—is the oldest, most important north-south thoroughfare in Montréal.

The Main was cobbled together from streets that date from the French and British periods. In 1672, a stretch of what would become The Main was located within the old city walls; it was called Saint-Lambert Street. When Montréal's fortifications were strengthened, the Grande Porte Saint-Laurent provided the single route out of the walled city; it was not much more than a narrow path, called Saint-Laurent Road. In 1792, the British officially recognized Saint-Laurent Road as the division between the east and west halves of the city. The neighbourhoods would become Plateau Mt-Royal, where the French settled, and Mile End, home to the English. The street became known as Saint-Laurent du Main, then The Main.

Until the mid 19th-century, the steep escarpment at Sherbrooke Street divided the lower Main, a neighbourhood of skilled workers, businesses and middle-class residences, from the rural area of orchards and farms above.

In the late 19th and early 20th-centuries, immigrants flooded into Canada through Montréal. Saint-Laurent Boulevard pulled them like a magnet. The Main's factories, affordable housing, groceries and stores, and community institutions welcomed each group in turn. First the Jews from eastern Europe, then Italians, Portuguese, Poles, Greeks, Chinese, and Latin Americans, and more recently Africans and people from the Caribbean moved to The Main and made their mark.

The Main is a street of industry, retail business, and culture. For more than sixty years, it was the heart of the garment industry. Although most of the factories along The Main have closed, the Balfour, Cooper, and Vineberg buildings have been transformed to artists' lofts and media centres.

The street is also home to Radio Centre-Ville (which broadcasts programs in seven languages) and several newspapers including a Yiddish language paper, Les Nouvelles Chinoises, and La Presse.

In the 20th-century, city governments undertook more projects of urban renewal which disturbed the vibrant street life of the lower Main. Buildings were demolished in order to widen east-west thoroughfares and push through the Ville-Marie Expressway.

Through it all, The Main has carried on.

In 1996 Parks Canada gave official recognition to Saint-Laurent Boulevard as a national historic site, important because of how it has functioned as a gateway for immigrants to Canada. The Main is a place that embodies the immigrant experience and also the commercial vitality and very history of Montréal.

For more information, follow these links:

Les F said...

Here look at this, instead of allowing the wild paint scheme on the bottom floor,which looks pretty tacky & gives the building a look of disrepair,with paint as a bandaid solution to brighten it up,it (IMO) would look better to fix up the whole front of the building & allow the old archiecture like at the top of these buildings to be better represented.