Maplecourt, McGill Ghetto
On a cold, grey day last December, stir-crazy after more than a week of snow, I took a walk down Decarie Boulevard in Montreal. It’s not the most obvious place for a stroll—a six-lane, sunken expressway runs down the middle of it—but it’s a pretty interesting street nonetheless, taking you through a growing Russian neighbourhood and past old landmarks like the Snowdon Theatre and the Snowdon Deli.
Along the way from Van Horne to Queen Mary, I noticed something else, too: the names of the apartment houses along Decarie. Heading south, I passed a series of boxy 1940s-era buildings with strangely terse names—King, York, Michel—each inscribed very plainly above the main entrance. Some of the more modern buildings along the street had more flamboyant names, like the Decarie Towers, which as far as I could tell consisted of just one tower, and a fairly short one at that.
Historically, property developers have used names to distinguish and define their apartment buildings. They’re a marketing gimmick, in other words. Inadvertently, though, apartment building names can reveal a lot about a city’s character.
In Montreal, apartment houses first became fashionable in the late nineteenth century, mostly in the upper-middle-class anglophone neighbourhoods around the Golden Square Mile. That might explain why, in a city that was about half French-speaking, the names of these buildings were strikingly Anglo-Saxon. Some were reliably conservative, like the Waldorf and the Smithsonian. Others traded on imperial glory, like the King Edward and the Majestic. Still others were almost cloyingly quaint, like the Pickwick Arms.
That began to change as the twentieth century progressed and more playful names emerged. Early examples include Il Palazzo in Outremont, the Chisamba on Pine Avenue and the Modern Court, a light-hearted Art Moderne building in Côte des Neiges. Later, the names became even spacier: 1947 saw the construction of the Moon Crest on Côte St. Luc Road. Le Colisée and the inexplicable Barcelona 97 were built near McGill University in 1966.
Lately, that mid-century playfulness has been replaced by post-modern abstraction and nouveau-bourgeois pomposity. The latter can be seen most often in the new developments around Old Montreal and the Lachine Canal, where the M9, Somo and Zone C have recently risen. Downtown, new developments include Le Demitrius, Le Crystal, Les Condos de la Dauversière and Le Roc Fleuri, names that are as florid as they are irrelevant.
Immigration and cultural diversity have played a role in the naming of Montreal’s apartment buildings. Many of the apartment building that emerged in Chinatown during the 1980s have Chinese names, including Wah yun dai lau and Nyun ngoi lau, which are more elegant in Chinese than they are in English: the first means “Chinese People Building” and the other, “Nice Building.” In the Italian enclave of St. Leonard, new condo buildings like the Piazza Valentino and Villa Latella, aimed the empty nester market, grandly evoke la patria.
The Chesterfield, Westmount
Another version of this article was published in the Spring 2008 edition of Maisonneuve.
Tags: Apartment Building Names, Exploring the City, Identity, Montreal