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