Three Visions of Montreal

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Today, the corner of University and La Gauchetière is as cold and forboding an intersection as you are likely to find in Montreal, bordered on all sides by charmless office towers. In 1945, however, as this photo shows, the corner provided a spectacular cutaway view of three remarkable buildings. Each represents a different facet of Montreal’s history.

On the far left, the St. James Cathedral (now dedicated to Mary, Queen of the World) was commissioned by Monseigneur Ignace Bourget, the Bishop of Montreal, shortly after the city’s previous cathedral was destroyed by fire in 1852. Bourget was an ambitious man, an ultramontanist who believed firmly in the supremacy of the Catholic Church over life in Quebec. It made sense, then, that he decreed that the new cathedral would be built in the Golden Square Mile, Montreal’s bastion of Anglo-Protestant privilege, where more than three-quarters of Canada’s wealth was concentrated. Bourget was making a political statement, using geography to assert the power of the church.

By the time it was completed, in 1894, its copper dome could seen from throughout Montreal. It remained unchallenged until 1931, when an even more impressive temple to another religion—commerce—was erected across the street.

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Downtown and the Sun Life Building in 1935

The Sun Life Building was built in three phases, the earliest starting in 1913. Its design, notable in particular for huge, impersonal neoclassical features designed to dwarf everything around them, is an example of the commercial gigantism that was fashionable in Montreal at the time. The first part of the building to be completed was the seven-storey base; a sixteen-storey tower was added between 1929 and 1931, giving the building a total of 24 floors. While this was a middling height at best—Toronto’s Commerce Court North, completed in the same year, was a full ten stories taller—the Sun Life impressed with its sheer size. Even today, it cuts an impressive figure in Montreal’s skyline. Walking in front of it remains a belittling experience.

The Sun Life Building’s location on Dominion Square, across from the cathedral and the elegant Windsor Hotel, reflected an important shift in the location of Montreal’s business district. Historically, the city’s centre of commerce was located down the hill, around St. James Street between Place d’Armes and Victoria Square. In the mid-nineteenth century, when the city’s English-speaking elite began moving uptown, Montreal’s high-end retail followed and Ste. Catherine Street became the city’s main shopping district. Gradually, the business district made the trip up the hill, too.

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Sun Life Building and construction of bridge over CN tracks, 1931

The third building in the photo, on the right, is Central Station, Montreal’s main Canadian National train station. Completed in 1943, its broad sweep, clean lines and complete lack of ornamentation distinguish it as an example of early Modernism. Whatever the intent of its architects, however, Central Station lacks the gravitas normally associated with train stations, even modern ones. A friend recently described it as a “Soviet shoe factory” and the label fits, especially considering its modest, windowless waiting hall adorned by a vaguely socialist fresco depicting generations of Canadians working together to build the Great White North. Central Station might be an interesting building in theory, but in practice it really does bear more resemblance to a suburban factory than to a hub of transit.

For a city that was Canada’s metropolis, home to all of the country’s great railway companies, it might seem strange that Montreal is stuck with such a dinky and ignominious train station. Unlike Toronto, though, where the railroad companies teamed up to build the impressive Union Station, the railroad companies maintained competing collections of disparate train stations in Montreal.

Montreal’s first railway station was Bonaventure Station, built in 1847 on Chaboillez Square. In the 1860s, it was leased by the Grand Trunk Railway and was used as the terminus for the Intercolonial Railroad to Halifax. A small, quirky Victorian building, it was slated to be replaced by a grandiose terminal in 1900, but plans fell through. The old station was destroyed by fire in 1916.

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Top, Bonaventure Station in the 1860s.
Below, a rendering of its planned replacement.

Across town, on Notre Dame Street, the CPR completed its modest Dalhousie Station in 1884. Two years later, it was from here that the first direct, non-stop intercontinental train in North America departed. Shortly thereafter, the CPR build another station at Peel and La Gauchetière, just up the hill from Bonaventure Station: the large and grandiose Windsor Station, which opened in 1889. It was accompanied by the independently-owned Windsor Hotel, one block away, which quickly became the favoured meeting place for Montreal’s movers and shakers. Both the Windsor Station and Hotel were just a quick jaunt away from Ignace Bourget’s new cathedral.

In 1898, the CPR opened a third station on Viger Square, right next to Dalhousie Station. It was a combination railway station-hotel, the third structure built in the CPR’s famous “château” style, after the Hotel Vancouver and the Château Frontenac. Meant to serve as meeting place for the French-Canadian elite, in contrast to the anglophone hub that was the Windsor Hotel, the success of Place Viger was nonetheless stymied by the shift uptown of Montreal’s business district. The hotel closed during the Great Depression and the train station followed suit in 1951.

Although Central Station did not open until 1943, plans to build it were hatched as soon as Canadian National Railway was formed in the 1920s from the remnants of the Grand Trunk and Canadian Northern railway companies. CN services were split between several small stations, including the temporary replacement for the fire-ravaged Bonaventure Station. Central Station was an effort to consolidate CN’s presence in Montreal and it indeed served as an important counterpoint to Windsor Station. The CN even built its own grand railway hotel next to Central Station, the Queen Elizabeth. When the CPR dismantled its passenger rail service in 1978, Central Station became the only intercity train station left in Montreal.

Today, Central Station itself is practically invisible, hidden behind the Queen Elizabeth Hotel and an unappealing office block. The other two parts of 1945’s symbolic trio have been obscured, too, literally overshadowed by even more iconic buildings from later eras: Place Ville-Marie; the massive brutalism of Place Bonaventure; the Château Champlain; the CIBC Building.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Friday March 30 2007at 09:03 am , filed under Architecture, Canada, History, Transportation and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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