Phillips Square, it has always seemed to me, is inexplicably overlooked. In theory, it should be one of Montreal’s most prominent public spaces, situated as it is in the downtown retail district, across the street from a major department store. While it is certainly busy, though, at least during the day, it has none of the ambiance or notoriety of some of the city’s other parks, plazas and squares. It doesn’t seem like a particularly distinct place to meet and gather; it’s just there.
Yet Phillips Square is one of Montreal’s oldest squares. First laid out in 1842, in what was then an elite residential district on the fringes of town, the prestigious retail stores it lured uptown sparked the rise of Ste. Catherine Street as the city’s premier shopping district. Henry Morgan moved his department store to Phillips Square in 1891; he was followed by Birks, which opened its signature jewelery store shortly thereafter. By the turn of the twentieth century, Phillips Square had become a fairly important transit hub, a role it would maintain for the better part of a century: a 1941 map of the city’s streetcar network indicates that six tram lines passed through or terminated at Phillips Square.
More recent years weren’t as kind to the square. It fell into a sort of decrepitude until it was renovated in 1995. Today, a gaggle of about a dozen vendors ply their wares on the Ste. Catherine side of the square; behind, a midday crowd of office workers, shoppers, students and homeless people sit on the ledges of the square’s stone planters and the steps of the ornate monument to King Edward VII that provides the square with a visual focus.
Phillips Square isn’t a bad public space by any means. In fact, there is a certain solid respectability in its paving stones, flowerbeds and monuments: this is a square being a square, in contrast to other squares that pretend to be parks, like the verdant but much less successful Cabot Square on the western edge of downtown. Still, I can’t help but feel that Phillips Square lacks something. Perhaps it is because it is such a daytime space: when the sun goes down at the shops begin to close, nobody really lingers there. Compare that to Place des Arts, a much less intimate plaza that is nonetheless a popular hangout at all hours.
It has been more than a decade since Phillips Square’s last renovation. Maybe it’s time to once again rethink its design. I like the street vendors, which add a lot to the conviviality of Ste. Catherine Street, but they don’t do much for the rest of the square. Perhaps a café stand could be opened in one of the vending spaces, with loose tables and chairs scattered around the square like in Parisian parks. What do you think?
Top photo courtesy of the Phillips Square Hotel.
Tags: Exploring the City, Montreal, Squares, Streetlife, Urban Design