Montrealers who write about bagels walk a fine line, especially when catering to an audience that reaches many New Yorkers. The rivalry between these two cities and their respective bagel addicts has been going on for many years, with each side sticking to their guns as to which doughy treat is best. Things can get quite vicious: the Montreal Gazette’s food critic Lesley Chesterman called New York bagels buns with holes in the middle and said that New Yorkers should be ashamed to call them bagels. During the taping of an episode of No Reservations about Quebec, TV personality and bagel purist Anthony Bourdain was forced to try a Montreal bagel. Under much pressure from his hosts he had to admit that Montreal’s sweeter, chewier version of the doughnut shaped roll was quite scrumptious. The judges are still out on this one and everyone seems to be enjoying the taste tests. It’s all in good fun!
Mayor Jean Drapeau, responsible for the modernization of the city and also in power in 1967, wanted to make Montreal a part of the very select list of cultural capitals. As other Canadian cities like Toronto or Vancouver where becoming economic capitals, Drapeau said: ‘Let Toronto become Milan, Montreal will always be Rome’. This is why he chose to make Montreal a city of big events such as the Olympics.
After a few failed attempts, Montreal was officially chosen over Moscow and Los Angeles on May 12th 1970 for the Summer Olympics of 1976. Over the next six years, preparations were under way in order to be able to host the numerous sporting events and the thousands of people who would be flowing into the city for the two weeks of competitions.
Olympics often push countries to build impressive, audacious buildings (see London, Turin, Tokyo, Beijing). This common practice is often attributed to the fact that between 1912 and 1952, medals for excellence in architecture were also given out at the games. Though prizes are not being given out anymore, the tradition has kept on throughout the years and Montreal proved no exception.
Here are two important, very quirky, permanent structures that were built to serve for the 1976 Summer Olympics:
The Olympic Stadium and the Tower of Montreal
The Olympic stadium circa 1976. The famous leaning tower was not completed in time for the summer games.
Every city that hosts Olympic games needs a venue with a large seating capacity where sport competitions can be held. Though certain cities already have these (football arenas are frequently used), many others like Montreal must build one.
Jean Drapeau and the Olympic committee chose French architect Roger Taillibert to design the stadium and other venues for the Olympic Park.
The stadium he conceptualized for Montreal’s 1976 Summer Olympics is without a doubt his most famous structure to this day. The unusual, curvaceous forms of the arena and the leaning tower are often compared to an insect or an alien, and the building has become one of the most well-known Olympic stadiums of all time.
The construction process was marred by numerous obstacles (strikes, delays, problems with the retractable roof and a quickly mounting price tag that frustrated citizens). Mayor Drapeau had promised that the stadium would be done and paid for by the end of the games, but it ended up being completed only in 1986 and it took the population of Quebec 30 years to fully pay the bill (hence the stadium’s longstanding nickname, ‘The Big Owe’).
Regardless of this, it is still a fascinating piece of architecture and a remarkable part of Montreal’s collection of quirky buildings. The stadium is underused, as it has no official function since Montreal lost its Major League Baseball team, the Expos, in 2004. However, promoters are trying to reinforce a possible use as a concert venue and parts of the basement presently serve as office space for various sports and leisure federations.
Montreal’s Olympic stadium, architectural detail
Montreal’s Olympic Stadium
The Olympic Village
The idea of having an Olympic Village during the Games initially came from the founder of Modern Olympics himself, Pierre de Coubertin. He realized that it would be less costly for the hosting cities to build structures that could eventually be sold as housing, instead of putting all the athletes and their entourages into hotel rooms. It also helped create a sense of sharing and community, an idea not uncommon with one of the actual purposes of the Games themselves: to bring all nations together in peace for a brief period of friendly competition.
In 1976, 11,000 athletes stayed in the two pyramids of Montreal’s Olympic Village for the duration of the games. Located less than 1 mile away from the stadium, the housing complex was also designed and built under the supervision of Roger Taillibert.
After the Games were over, the hundreds of rooms were turned into rental apartments and are still quite coveted today.
A bird’s eye view of the Olympic village taken in the 1970s.
The Olympic village today
When the Eiffel tower was first erected for the 1889 World Fair in Paris, people hated it and wanted it taken down. Nowadays, Paris wouldn’t be Paris without the beautiful iron structure standing proudly in front of the Seine.
In a way, the Olympic Stadium is Montreal’s Eiffel tower, a quirky, downright strange element of architecture which most people have grown to love. Without it, Montreal just wouldn’t be the same.
The Sixties and Seventies were an interesting period of time for Montreal. In the race to become a modern metropolis, the city’s skyline became a massive jumble of cranes and concrete. Back then, an ambitious man named Jean Drapeau was mayor of the city. Today, he is often designated as a visionary, as it was under his 29-year rule that many of the city’s biggest projects happened, such as 1967 World Fair (best known as Expo 67) and the 1976 Summer Olympics.
Via these two events, Montreal attracted the world’s attention and became the city that it is today, a booming cultural metropolis.
The modernization process was aggressive and many neighborhoods and historic buildings were destroyed in order to make place for the new infrastructures that were required to host both happenings. This engendered much protesting at the time and ongoing criticism in the following decades, regarding costs and what to do with the buildings once the events were over.
However, today the tumult has calmed a bit and these buildings are usually seen as quirky and retro. Along the way, they have become integral parts of Montreal’s eclectic panorama.
In this first installment of a series about the quirky buildings of Montreal, we will talk about 3 buildings that were created for Expo 67 and how they are being used today.
Expo 67 full view circa 1967
Expo 67 was held from April to October 1967. It is estimated that 50 million people made the trip to Île Sainte-Hélène and Île Notre-Dame to visit the Fair, which hosted the pavilions of 62 nations. Each of these countries had their own designated area and many of them hired prominent architects to create elaborate, audacious buildings for them. Most of these installations have disappeared over the years but a few have remained standing.
Here are the most remarkable ones that are still in use:
Quirky building #1
United States pavilion then.
The Biosphere today.
The Biosphere (United States pavilion, Ile Sainte-Hélène)
The United States pavilion is one of the most distinctive installations built on the grounds of Expo 67. Its shape, in the form of a geodesic dome, is directly related to the signature style of its creator, noted inventor and futurist Richard Buckminster Fuller.
Inside, an exhibit showcased hundreds of objects recounting a typical vision of American culture (like spaceships, baseball bats, Raggedy Ann dolls and Andy Warhol paintings).
Once the Expo was over, the building served various purposes such as hosting private events or being used as a bird sanctuary. In 1976 however, a massive fire destroyed the external (translucent acrylic) skin. Regardless of this, the structure remained intact and in 1990, an environmental museum was installed inside.
Recently, it was announced that the museum would be closing in late 2013. So far it is not known what will become of the Biosphere.
Close-up of the geodesic dome.
Quirky building #2
Casino de Montréal, circa 1967
The France Pavilion today.
Casino (France Pavilion and Quebec Pavilion, Ile Notre-Dame)
France’s pavilion was one of the largest buildings at the Expo 67. The massive 9 story construction was designed by architects Jean Faugeron and André Blouin. When the gates of the Fair closed, it was turned into the Palais De la Civilization, a historical and sociological museum. In 1993, the Montreal Casino took up the space and has been there ever since. A few years later, Quebec’s pavilion (seen at the right hand side of the last picture) was also annexed into the leisure complex.
Quirky building #3
Habitat 67 then.
Habitat 67 – Cité du Havre today.
The outside premises of Habitat 67 today.
Habitat 67 (Cité du Havre):
Aside from the country pavilions, Expo 67 also had theme pavilions like: Man the creator, Man the producer or Man the explorer. Habitat 67 was one of these. Designed by eminent architect Moshe Safdie, Habitat was supposed to represent the housing complex of the future.
During the Expo, visitors could explore a prototype apartment and witness firsthand the architect’s idea of affordable, modern urban living.
Safdie, then a young Mcgill University student, initially hoped to expand the residential complex throughout the surrounding area and even wanted to include boutiques, restaurants and a school but was forced to review his plans due to a lack of funds.
The full structure that was finally constructed consists of 354 individual, identical concrete blocks that are assembled to form 3 interconnected pyramids, 12 floors and 146 independent units (each made up of 1 to 5 blocks). Windows are oriented on three sides and each unit has a sizable outdoor terrace.
After the Expo, most of the apartments were put up for rent and upkeep of the building was partly neglected. However, starting in the 80s, Habitat 67 became prime real-estate in Montreal. In 2009 the building was classified as a historic monument by the Quebec government. This means that the outer shell, the public spaces and two units (1011 & 1012) are protected by law. The inner area is no longer accessible to visitors but it is possible to walk around the outdoor premises, as long as you stay respectful.
Today, as we walk through the subway doors, setting foot on Ile Sainte-Hélène, we are constantly reminded of the Expo and how much of an impact it has had on the city of Montreal. In fact, most of this island, as well as Ile Notre-Dame, were created for the 1967 World Fair. The grounds have since been turned into a large park and now hold the name of Parc Jean-Drapeau, after the former mayor.
For more pictures taken during the Fair, check out this video which also features the official anthem of Expo 67:
Sherbrooke Street West, where many mansions are located within Golden Square Mile in Montreal
Montreal is known for it’s eclectic architectural style and nowhere is that more true than in the downtown area. Like in most large cities, the Centre-Ville is where people come to work and shop. Generally, the buildings reflect that fact, with skyscrapers and concrete structures dominating the urban landscape. What makes Montreal’s own downtown area interesting is that it used to be an affluent residential neighborhood. Nicknamed Golden Square Mile, it earned this moniker because it was here, at the foot of Mount Royal, that some of North America’s wealthiest families lived during the era between 1850 and 1940. This means that the streets were lined with mansions, each larger and more opulent than the other. The residents, mostly businessmen of Scottish descent, formed a tight community that ruled over Canada.
During the 1930′s, when Old Montreal became desolate, most of the city’s financial and commercial activity moved from that area to the Golden Square Mile, thus slowly changing the former’s vocation from a purely residential neighborhood to a business center. At the same time, many of the wealthy families left for Toronto or New York, so the houses were being abandoned. Today, less than 30% of the mansions in Golden Square Mile remain standing and only a handful are still used as private residences. Most have been converted into university pavilions, hotels, museums and embassies.
Here are a few interesting examples that still stand between the skyscrapers in Golden Square Mile. Included in this article are comparison pictures, showing the buildings in their past and present environments. All of the historical pictures are from the Notman photographic archives which are kept at McCord Museum.
Ravenscrag/Allan Memorial Institute (part of Royal Victoria hospital)
This castle-like mansion was commissioned by financial magnate Sir Hugh Allan. Built between 1861 and 1864, it was once the biggest private home in the city, with 60 rooms connecting behind a Neo-Renaissance facade, along with a stable and an entrance pavilion.
The palatial dwelling was donated to the neighboring Royal Victoria Hospital in 1942. It was then converted into a psychiatric research wing. The interior decor and structures were fully dismantled and some parts of the outdoor appearance were modified in order to serve the new functions it had been given. However, it still possible to observe the past grandeur of Ravenscrag through details such as the impressive wrought iron gate and the observation tower.
Mount Stephen Club
Prior to closing it’s doors in December 2011, the Mount Stephen Club had been a meeting spot for the upper classes since 1926. It was a gentlemen’s private club located inside the home of railway magnate/philanthropist Sir George Stephen, which was built between 1880 and 1883. At the time, it had cost $600,000 to build (approx. $13 million today), a sum that represented an immense fortune for those days. Like Ravenscrag, it was designed in a Renaissance revival style.
Nowadays, the imposing abode is surrounded by modern buildings, health clubs, restaurants and condominium towers. As for the future use of the building itself, it has been announced that a new 80 room high-end boutique hotel will be built in back of the Stephen house and the former club will be used as its lobby.
Maison Alcan/ Atholstan House
French aluminium multinational Rio Tinto Alcan is the first company to have bought, restored and adapted some of the luxurious dwellings of the Golden Square Mile, making them a part of their world headquarters. The buildings form a block that is located on Sherbrooke street, a major artery in Montreal where most of the remaining Golden Square Mile mansions can be seen.
Montreal architectural firm Arcop is responsible for the mixed integration of 19th century homes and modern skyscrapers that were connected in 1983. Among the buildings that were rehabilitated is Lord Hugh Graham Atholstan’s house, a chic urban residence that was decorated in a classical style, adorned with a few Beaux-Arts details like the arabesques that circle the oeil-de-boeuf windows on the faà§ade.
Canadian Centre for Architecture
The Canadian Centre fo Architecture (CCA) is a great testament to the revival and upkeep of the city’s heritage buildings. It was founded by Phyllis Lambert, an influential architect and one of Montreal’s biggest proponents for the preservation and integration of historical structures into a modern cityscape.
This particular building has been her life’s work. Formerly known as the Shaughnessy house, it was built in 1876 for Thomas Shaughnessy, a railway administrator. After extensive renovations and a modernized interior, the Second Empire building now houses a highly regarded architecture museum and a research center.
J.K.L Ross House
A fair number of the former residences were bought by McGill University and made a part of their sumptuous, sprawling downtown campus. Commissioned in 1909 by a wealthy businessman named James Ross, the J.K.L. Ross house was used as a residence by his son John Kenneth Leveson Ross until his death in the 1950s. It was sold to McGill university in 1976, after having housed the offices of the Marianopolis College for over a decade. It is now occupied by the Institute of Air and Space Law.
J.K.L. Ross House, from a different perspective
Over the last few decades, Montreal’s citizens and politicians have shown more and more concern about maintaining the city’s architectural heritage. After many decades of aggressive modernization, efforts are now been put together in order to integrate the past into the city’s current and future urban planning. The Golden Square Mile area has become a prime example of these concerns, thus making for an interesting visit both for locals and tourists.
The story of the neighboring districts of Little Burgundy and Saint-Henri is an oft-told one. Both are working-class neighborhoods that were lively in the thirties and forties, but went into decline after new road infrastructure (like the Turcot interchange) isolated them during the urban renewal efforts of the sixties. Artists and young entrepreneurs eventually started moving into the area, attracted by the cheap rent and (potentially) beautiful buildings. Now, gentrification is starting, but at a fairly slow rate.
Historically, it was in Little Burgundy that much of Montreal’s internationally renowned jazz scene developed. Starting in the 1880s, the area was home to a large part of Montreal’s black community, most of which worked on the nearby railroads. Music was an important part of their daily lives, be it at church or in the many music clubs around the neighborhood. During the Prohibition era, musicians like Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughn and Dizzy Gillespie regularly crossed the border and came to Little Burgundy/Saint-Henri to enjoy the crazy nights at popular cabarets like Rockhead’s paradise or Café Saint-Michel.
Today, most of this community has split up and moved to other parts of the city but its past presence can still be felt in subtle ways. For example, parks and buildings have recently been renamed to honor famous local jazz musicians like Oliver Jones or Oscar Peterson.
A few noteworthy spots from that particular era are still standing, but abandoned or in dire need of renovation, like the former community center turned into a street art hotspot, or the Union United Church, which has hosted gospel concerts and conferences by Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela.
Today, efforts are slowly being put together in order to keep them up and instill a new breath of life into them.
Art has also been incorporated more officially into public spaces in Little Burgundy. The Art Deco Atwater Market building, selling fresh produce and meat since 1933, is located right on the edge of the Lachine Canal, a popular spot for cycling trips and summer picnics. On a terrace between the market and the water’s edge, there is an installation by Montreal-based Polish artist Jacek Jarnuszkiewicz. Each of Les Allusif‘s eight stainless steel sculptures refers to one aspect in the surrounding neighborhood’s history, partly focusing on its musical heritage (represented by two side by side pianos facing opposite ways).
Notre-Dame Street is at the center of Little Burgundy’s revival. Though the street runs through more than 22 miles of Montreal, the section of Notre-Dame Street that passes through Little Burgundy has its own nickname and personality, having long been known as “Antique Alley” because of the clustering of antique shops. In the last decade, trendy record labels, non profit organizations and restaurants have also settled here. Two of Montreal’s most hyped eateries, Joe Beef and Burgundy Lion are attracting tourists and locals alike to the area.
Finally, also standing on this stretch of Notre-Dame street is the Théâtre Corona. The former movie theater turned concert venue was built in 1912 and has a distinctive cast-iron and ceramic facade and a luxuriously decorated interior.
Left to abandon between 1965 and 1987, it was then used by artists Martha Fleming and Lyne Lapointe as a setting for their art installation La Donna deliquenta (Be sure to check out this link to see beautiful pictures of the interior before it was restored). This event marked the moment when the old theater came back into public consciousness.
A decade later, it was bought and restored by a non lucrative arts corporation. Nowadays, it is a popular spot for intimate concerts (it has a capacity of 750 people), hosting local indie bands as well as household names (Patrick Watson, The Raveonettes, Steve Earle and Sleigh Bells have all played here in 2012).
Today, residents continue to embrace Little Burgundy as home and are proud to be part of its revival. Even for those that don’t reside there, it has been a pleasure to see how creative and inspiring its rebirth has been.
Like many modern North-american cities, Montreal has a neighborhood that still holds as a reminder of times past.
After its heyday in the 18th and 19th centuries, what is now known as Old Montreal, was left to practical abandon for years. Numerous buildings fell victim to the will of real estate promoters and were replaced by concrete structures. In order to stop the massacre, urban planners, architects and historians came together to protect what was left. Nowadays the old buildings are being renovated into restaurants, hotels, art galleries and designer shops – some of these being among the best the city has to offer.
Very popular with tourists, Old Montreal is often avoided by Montrealers, many of whom come here only once or twice a year. They tend to forget that this attractive neighborhood holds many interesting things to discover. Starting at metro Champ-de-Mars and walking towards metro Square Victoria, here are some places that often get overlooked by people visiting this charming district.
Built in a Neoclassical style, the Marché Bonsecours and its shiny dome have become ubiquitous with the image of Old Montreal. The indoor part is often overlooked. Inside, shops sell locally made products: clothes, jewelry, artisan goods. The market also hosts interesting art exhibits, fashion events and gastronomical fairs.
Though its grounds are not accessible to the public, the St Sulpice seminary is worth the quick look, it being the oldest still-standing building in the city. It is a peaceful spot to set sight upon, especially after visiting tourist hot-spot Notre-Dame Basilica that is located next door.
Former factories and shops have proven to be great spots to open art galleries. Art dealers and artist co-ops have invested in these formerly abandoned buildings, finding them to be ideal because of their tall walls and beautiful architectural details. The following are particularly interesting to visit:
Galerie le Royer, which behind its imposing arched facade, focuses on presenting the work of artists with a strikingly profound, often powerful approach.
Darling Foundry is a contemporary art production center and exhibition space housed in what was previously an industrial part of the city.
Many of Montreal’s high end boutiques are to be found in Old Montreal. It is, in a sense, a throwback to the neighborhood’s former stand as shopping haven to the local bourgeoisie. Even for those with empty wallets, these stores can be interesting to visit as the clothes are often creatively displayed.
Though Montreal’s fashion scene is rather small, designers like Denis Gagnon have managed to make their mark in the international arena. His bold works, worthy of an art museum, can be observed in his namesake shop on St-Paul Street.
Their names are often mixed up but they are two different entities: Old Montreal and the Old Port are split by a single train track which can be easily crossed to reach the other side. People who visit the Old Port often stick to the (interesting) science museum and the front edge of the marina. If you venture further, towards the end of each pier, you are treated to some of the best views of Old Montreal and the St-Lawrence River, whilst beating the crowds.
During the summer, outdoor concerts are held at the Jacques-Cartier Pier. Over the last few years, international artists like Muse, Sigur Ros and Portishead have played here. In good temperature, the atmosphere created can be absolutely magical as you witness the sun setting upon the city, whilst the water and wind create surprisingly good sound conditions.
In the 19th century, Saint-Jacques street was the financial core of the city and many banks built their head offices here. This explains the ornate, often opulent architecture that dominates here more than anywhere else in the city. Today, most banks have moved to bigger, more central digs. Restaurants, offices and renowned luxury hotels like the St-James have taken their place. It makes for an interesting stroll for architecture fans.
Another one of those hotels sticks out because of the artworks displayed right in front of its Second Empire facade. Owned by a renowned art collector, L’Hotel‘s main entrance stands between the works of world renowned artists like Robert Indiana and Fernando Botero.
Montreal’s Centre de commerce mondial (World trade center) is home to many interesting works of art, displayed in its attractive glass enclosed public promenade. Most unexpectedly, it is also here that you can find a fragment of the Berlin wall, on display much like a sculpture or public art installation.
Old Montreal is and always will be a tourist oriented district, with all the good and the bad aspects that this can entail. However, it is worth spending time here. Those cute but busy main streets are made to be ventured off of. In the midst, part of the fun is getting lost in the streets that intersect, appearing and disappearing to form a lovely maze.
This article is part of an on-going series on Montreal.