My exciting long weekend in Montreal unfortunately had to come to an end. After an exciting day of exploration yesterday that ended with an absolutely delicious dinner at Nuances, the fine dining restaurant at the Casino de Montreal, capped by an impressive pyro-musical performance at La Ronde, I rested up so I would be able to squeeze in a few more hours of discovery this morning. One more exploration of the city before I would have to had back to Toronto on the train before noon.
With all my suitcases duly packed I went off for one more urban adventure. Fortunately checkout wasn’t until noon, so I was able to leave my luggage at the hotel and just head off with my camera and my backpack. I started walking west on Rue De La Gauchetière Ouest which starts off as a fairly small street surrounded by five or six story high older buildings. The first major sight I came across was St. Patrick’s Basilica.
This gothic revival building, a designated Canadian heritage site, is one of the most magnificent examples of this style in all of Canada. The massive arrival of Irish immigrants in the early 1800s created the need for more houses of worship and construction of St. Patrick’s was started in 1843 with the first mass being celebrated in 1847. The interior of this church features 150 oil paintings of saints and is known for the “St. Patrick’s Chimes”, a chime system composed of ten bells, the oldest of which dates back to 1774.
I continued west past increasingly modern buildings until I happened across a major urban square: Dorchester Square, formerly known as Dominion Square. This wide open public space is a former cemetery which held the victims of the 1832 cholera epidemic. Today it holds several statues, including a monument commemorating the victims of the Boers War, a statue of Robert Burns – a Scottish poet, and another statue of Sir Wilfried Laurier, a former Canadian prime minister.
The south side of the square is called Place du Canada, which is the setting for the annual Remembrance Day ceremony which honours Canadians that were killed in the First and Second World Wars as well as the Korean War. Dorchester Square is surrounded by several magnificent buildings. The north end holds the Dominion Square Building which is also the location of the Centre Infotouriste, Montreal Tourism’s headquarters.
The east side of Dorchester Square is adorned by one of Montreal’s most astounding buildings: Mary Queen of the World Cathedral. This impressive church is one of two surviving local churches from the era before 1875. It illustrates the power that the church wielded before the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s. One of Montreal’s catholic bishops, Ignace Bourget, devised a grandiose plan to outshine the Notre Dame Basilica.
He decided to commission a church that would be a replica of Rome’s St. Peter’s Cathedral with a location right in the middle of a Protestant neighbourhood. Construction lasted from 1870 to 1894 and the copper statues of thirteen patron saints of Montreal’s parishes were installed in 1900. The church underwent extensive modernization in the 1950s. In recent years there has been significant reconstruction and the statue of Bishop Ignace Bourget outside the cathedral was restored in 2005. Mary Queen of the World was named a National Historic Site of Canada on May 14, 2006.
Further north on Place du Canada is the Sun Life Building which was finished in 1931 after three stages of construction. It was built exclusively for the Sun Life Assurance Company and measures 122 meters in height and counts 24 stories. Although the new head office of the Royal Bank of Canada at 360 Saint Jacques Street in Montreal was taller by several floors, the Sun Life Building was at the time the largest building in terms of square footage anywhere in the British Empire. The Sun Life Building has historic significance: during World War II the basement vaults of the Sun Life Building were the secret hiding place of the Crown Jewels of England and the gold bullion of the Bank of England. Today it stands as Montreal’s 17th highest building.
On the West side of Place du Canada are also several historic buildings, starting with St. George’s Anglican Church, a Gothic Revival-style church, which was opened for worship in October of 1870. Its main features include the magnificent double hammer-beam roof, one of the largest of its type in the world. The unique column-free interior combines elements of both English and French Gothic plans, and the church features magnificent wood carvings in the chancel.
The original bells of the church had to be sent out to a country church since the sound of the 13 bells was considered too loud for a city church. A new set of 10 bells of a lower tone was installed in 1901 and the new sound was deemed to be beautiful. The original architect considered to include a clock in the clock tower but was concerned about a clock spoiling the appearance. In addition, with the church facing Windsor Station, the architect was afraid of the wrath of railway passengers in the event that the clock was going to be inaccurate. Nevertheless, the clock was installed, only losing 6 seconds a year. A public clock was extremely important to people at the time since wrist watches had not been invented yet and pocket watches were difficult to access under thick winter apparel.
Right across the Street from St. George’s is Windsor Station – one of Montreal’s historic railway stations. Cornelius Van Horne, the famous chairman of Canadian Pacific, asked well-known architect Bruce Price to draw up plans for a modern railway station in 1887 to serve Canada’s transcontinental railroad. Price had already gained lots of experience from constructing skyscrapers in Manhattan, he had also built the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City, the Banff Springs Hotel and other chateau-style buildings across Canada and was the prime candidate to build this project. The railway station opened in 1889 and was enlarged in 1916 with a 15-story main tower. Windsor Station, built in a solid Richardson Romanesque revival style, witnessed a big expansion in rail travel in the early 20th century. In 1979 Windsor Station was abandoned in favour of Montreal’s Gare Centrale for transcontinental passenger traffic, but continued to house local commuter trains until 1993. Today it holds a hotel, a variety of stores and offices and the beautifully preserved central concourse still features the original arrivals and departure board and is used as a venue for major events. A major beer festival is also held at the Station annually. In recognition of its historic and architectural significance Windsor Station was named the first heritage train station in Canada in 1990.
After my explorations on Dorchester Square I strolled to the north-east end of this grand public space to enter one of Montreal’s most popular streets: Rue St-Catharines. This street stretches for a length of 15 km and is Montreal’s main commercial artery. Hundreds of stores and fashion retailers are located along this busy street and it also is the main location of the Montreal Jazz Festival. Since the 1960s several shopping centres have sprouted up and replaced some of the older townhouses that used to flank this historical thoroughfare. Montreal’s Eaton Centre is the most recent addition to the shopping centres on St. Catharines.
This street also features a wealth of historic buildings including Christ Church Cathedral. This impressive Neo-Gothic church was built in 1858 and consecrated in 1867 in the growing Gold Square Mile area. The architect Frank Mills used the cathedral of Salisbury, his home town, as a model for this building. The church features a beautiful stained glass window and surprisingly, the church itself rests on the roofs of an underground mall. Prior to the construction of the mall, the church was actually sinking into the soft ground. Indeed the original steeple had to be removed in 1927 due to its heavy weight and a much lighter steeple made of aluminum was constructed in 1940. Today the underground shopping centre, whose 1987 excavation required the church to be supported by concrete beams in mid-air, provides adequate structural support for the church. The 34-story office tower behind the church is topped by a crown of thorns and makes for a popular photo motif.
I continued to walk east on St. Catherines and happened upon Phillips Square, a beautiful urban space where the retail trade began in Montreal. Rue St. Catharines had formerly been a purely residential area. Henry Morgan, a Scottish immigrant with excellent connections in the dry goods retail trade in Glasgow, had moved a retail store to a new location at St. Catharines and Phillips Square after the old city , location of most of the retailers warehouses, had suffered a devastating flood in 1886. This store, built in the solid Richardson Romanesque style, later became “The Bay”, for the “Hudson’s Bay Company”, which is a chain of about 100 fashion department stores operating throughout Canada whose origins date back to the fur traders of the 1600s. The centre of Phillips Square is home to a monument of King Edward VII, and a Birks jewellery store, located in an attractive sandstone building, flanks the square on the west side.
It was getting close to departure time so I speeded up my walk back to the hotel. There was one more major architectural attraction on my way: St. James United Church. Completed in 1889, the present St. James Church is the fourth home of the St. James congregation and due to its impressive size it used to be known as the Cathedral Church of Methodism. The two towers anchored around a central large rose window are reminiscent of great French Gothic cathedrals. As a matter of fact, St. James United Church was hidden by commercial storefronts from 1926 onwards in order to raise revenue. The church remained concealed for more than 78 years and after the demolition of the commercial buildings it was finally uncovered again in 2005 and is currently undergoing some exterior renovations.
On my way back to the hotel I thought what amazing architectural wealth and beauty Montreal has to offer. From Old Montreal and the Old Port, first and foremost led by Notre-Dame Basilica, to its stunning Second Empire City Hall area to the historic centres of commerce on Rue St-Jacques or St. James Street to the magnificent public and religious buildings that can be seen all over the downtown core, Montreal dazzles with its architectural heritage.
Any architecture and history buff can’t help but love this city and I realized that three and a half days in this city are barely enough to scratch the surface. As I settled into my comfortable seat in the Via Rail coach back to Toronto I concluded that this trip was just an introduction, a mere overview, a brief taste of a diverse, multi-faceted city, with so many more places to explore in detail next time I come back.