December 16th, 2007

The Widening of Dorchester

Posted in Canada, History by Christopher DeWolf

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One of the more overlooked stories in the history of Montreal’s urban development is the widening of Dorchester Street. For more than a century, this long street spanned the centre of Montreal, from the working-class neighbourhoods of the Faubourg Sainte Marie to the more cossu quarters of the Golden Square Mile and lower Westmount. It was essentially Victorian in character, lined by nineteenth-century rowhouses, apartment buildings and not a few important landmarks, including Montreal’s Catholic cathedral and general hospital.

By the middle of the twentieth century, Dorchester had become a typical downtown street lined by a ragtag assortment of businesses, tenements and rooming houses. When Jean Drapeau was elected mayor in 1954 he saw in this unassuming artery the potential for a grand thoroughfare. Shortly after he took office, his administration ordered the destruction of hundreds of buildings along Dorchester; in 1955, the street was widened into an eight-lane boulevard.

Drapeau was as straight-edged and zealous in his desire for renewal as Montreal’s previous mayors had been corrupt and satisfied with the city’s disorder. In a way, the new Dorchester reflected his personal character and politicial ambitions: bold, even revolutionary, but also stern, unfriendly and controlling, a prude in a libertine city. The new Dorchester was not just a departure from Montreal’s traditional urbanism, it was a direct rebuke to it. It rejected the homely, intimate streets that have always defined the Montreal landscape, a clutter of mismatched staircases, cornices and odd signs. In part, this was in keeping with the Modernist ideals of the postwar era, but it was also part of Drapeau’s plan to do away with the old Montreal for which he had so much contempt.

The widening of Dorchester had its desired effect: Montreal’s centre of economic gravity shifted uphill from the old bastion of St. James Street. The CIBC Building, Place Ville Marie and Hydro-Quebec Building — arguably Montreal’s three most iconic skyscrapers — were all built on Dorchester in 1962. Dozens of other office buildings followed over the next three decades, cementing Dorchester’s role as the hub of business in Montreal. Strangely, little has been written about the behind-the-scenes politics of Dorchester. Even Brian McKenna and Susan Purcell lengthy 1980 biography of Drapeau contains but two mentions of it. What’s the story?

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3 comments

  1. Karl Harrison says:

    Great article Chris.
    I loved your very apt comparison of Drapeau and Dorchester.

    “In a way, the new Dorchester reflected his personal character and politicial ambitions: bold, even revolutionary, but also stern, unfriendly and controlling, a prude in a libertine city. “

    December 17th, 2007 at 9:47 am

  2. BruB says:

    Drapeau had a vision of what he wanted Montreal to be and although he left us with a few bills to paid. Without Drapeau Montreal would have fallen behind a lot faster compare to other big north american cities. I’m not saying that tremblay is doing a good job, but at least he’s got a vision that’s not far from Drapeau. I just beleive his intentions are not the sames.

    Boulevard René-Levesque is now a outstanding downtown core that would make any city proud. Merci Jean!

    December 18th, 2007 at 5:27 am

  3. DC says:

    Dorchester was a late and prominent example of a series of street widenings. Jason Gililland’s PhD thesis, in the library at McGill, lays out how repeated expropriation, demolition, and property consolidation accompanied street widening all throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, and successively increased the built scale. This is still visible in any number of older streets, like on Saint-Laurent between Duluth and Mont-Royal: the buildings and lots on the west side of the street are markedly bigger than those on the east, because the street was widened by expropriating and demolishing property on the west side.

    Dorchester was a bit of a meataxe approach and provided for an unprecedentedly wide street and unprecedentedly tall buildings, but is very much in continuity with pre-Drapeau approaches to redevelopment and reconfiguration to increase the scale of the built form.

    December 18th, 2007 at 11:44 am