Life’s Little Ironies

(First published in Quebec Heritage magazine in the spring 2019 edition) 

Within a stone’s throw of one another, at the intersection of St – Urbain and Sherbrooke Streets, stand two buildings of historic significance to Montreal. Both are over a century old, and both also represent a certain degree of irony considering who occupies them today.

The older of the two is found just east of St. Urbain Street at 82 Sherbrooke West. The three storey, free standing Montreal greystone edifice was constructed in 1875 and was initially inhabited in its first few years by one Joseph May, “fancy dry goods importer.” May sold his varied French products in a shop on St. James Street, near Victoria Square.

The hard-working businessman died at the age of 60 in 1879, most likely in his new home. As a measure of his unquestionable success, he even had his child photographed by William Notman, a privilege enjoyed almost solely by this city’s nineteenth century elite.

Individuals prominent in the English-speaking community in Montreal followed May: merchants Robert and James Mitchell, lawyer R. Stanley C. Bagg (of the illustrious nineteenth century city family of the same name), and businessman Stephen B. Heward, who lived in the enchanting Victorian building until 1898.

During the Edwardian Period, a leading French-speaking banker inhabited the Sherbrooke Street structure, along with his wife, 11 children, one granddaughter and three servants! Tancrède Bienvenu was a highroller in the newly-established Provincial Bank, today La Banque Nationale. Bienvenu left the house in 1912 after a twelve-year stay, moving his rather large family to Mount Pleasant Avenue in Westmount.

However, by far the longest occupier of the gabled-roofed edifice was the Montreal Reform Club, which used the building as its city headquarters for half a century. The association purchased it in 1913 for $55,000.

Established on June 17, 1898, the Reform Club was the social wing of the Liberal Party of Canada, and its provincial wing here in Quebec that, until July of 1964, was part of the same federal apparatus. By 1947, the club counted a remarkable 850 members, 670 French-speaking and another 180 who were English-speaking.

In the context of this extensive political history, it can only be assumed that many of the great Liberal and federalist names of the twentieth century appeared within its confines. For instance, former longtime Grit prime minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, was photographed entering the elegant edifice to address the club on December 4, 1915, less than four years before his death. Other Liberal politicians surely followed down through the years.

LaurierReformClub1915The irony, of course, is that since April of 1973 the building has belonged to the nationalist and pro-independence Société St-Jean-Baptiste de Montréal. On May 17, 1976, the SSJB renamed the property La Maison Ludger Duvernay, in honour of the founder of the Society.

Yet, to the best of my knowledge, the Société St-Jean- Baptiste de Montréal has never complained of the presence of frightening federalist ghosts within its walls!

SSJBLa Maison Ludger Duvernay 

The other structure of interest is the 109-year-old Montreal Technical and Commercial High School building on the northwest corner of Sherbrooke and St. Urbain. It was designed by the renowned Canadian architect, Jean-Omer Marchand.

Officially opened on February 1, 1907, in the presence of the Lieutenant-Governor, Sir Louis-Amable Jetté, and the premier of the province, Lomer Gouin, the glistening facility quickly became the flagship of the Protestant Board of School Commissioners, later the now-defunct PSBGM.

Outside, the four-storey construction of pressed brick resting on large sized Montreal limestone was a wonder to behold in the Edwardian Period. The entrance was particularly imposing for the time with four columns of sandstone stretching from the ground floor to the cornice, with massive bases and ornamental Ionic capitals with moulded and enhanced entablatures.

Inside the building, there were sixteen well-lit classrooms, various laboratories, library, gymnasium, two playrooms, lunchrooms, and a 600-seat auditorium; all of which were of the most up-to-date design and construction.

Furthermore, the edifice was considered to be fireproof throughout, being graced with terracotta floors and concrete partitions. This alone was an important factor as later that same month and year the notorious   Hochelaga School Fire took place in the city’s East End, taking the lives of 16 children and also that of Sarah Maxwell, their principal.

The Montreal Technical and Commercial High School was, at the time, a symbol of the power and prestige of   the city’s English-speaking, Protestant population as reflected in its diverse educational and social   institutions. It offered a three-year course in both manual training for boys and domestic science for girls. There was also significant emphasis on the importance of mastering the French language.

CommercialHighCommercial Academy Building today 

Less than two years later, Governor-General Grey and his wife, Alice Holford, visited the celebrated establishment to launch the introduction of evening classes to its extensive programme. Grey, who had put in place the foundation stone for the edifice only four years earlier, was, according to a Gazette report, “much struck by the character of the education offered, and the zeal with which it was being acquired by the students.” (Gazette, December 15, 1908)

In its early years, the state-of-the-art facility was leased out for other purposes unique to this town’s anglophone community. For instance, for the second half of 1909, the school was used as a temporary location for St. Gabriel’s and Chalmers Presbyterian Church services, as the two congregations prepared to unite the following year on Prince Arthur Street as First Presbyterian Church.

With the passage of time, the Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal eventually gave up the building in 1957, whereupon it became, for the latter half of the twentieth century, the Ecole des Beaux Arts de Montréal. It is here, in so far as this property is concerned, that some incongruity begins to manifest itself.

To begin with, the Ecole des Beaux Arts was first created in this city in 1922, with considerable encouragement and support from the Société St – Jean – Baptiste de Montréal, and then located in the Monument-National on Boulevard St-Laurent.

In addition, with the passage of time, this onetime   emblem of the impressive narrative of the English-speaking population of this city, the Montreal Technical and Commercial High School, is now home to none other than the Office québécois de la langue française.

In fact, immediately to the east of the notable building is found a commemorative effigy and a tiny garden dedicated the memory of the father of the OQLF, Dr. Camille Laurin, who died in March of 1999.

A third contiguous building could also be mentioned, even though it is no longer there. The magnificent Skaife residence, situated at 70 Sherbrooke West, was demolished in 1909 to make way for the erection of the Montreal Technical School on the southeast corner of the intersection at Jeanne Mance. That establishment still stands, today part of the Université du Québec à Montréal.

According to the May 11, 1909, edition of the Montreal Star, Adam Skaife, inherited the ancient home from his great great grandfather, John Platt, and the majestic domain was considered to have been, at the time, from 150-200 years old. Skaife had made his fortune in association with J. H. R. Molson & Brothers; otherwise known as Molson Brewery.

In his country-like estate nestled away on Sherbrooke Street, Adam Skaife was often seen seated, alone or with others, on the edifice’s summer veranda, overlooking the property’s beautiful gardens. It was indeed an idyllic setting, now forever lost to the inescapable march of time.

SkaifeHouse1908 

The Skaife Home, Sherbrooke Street

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Robert N. Wilkins is a local historian, and author of ‘Montreal 1909’ and ‘Montreal Recorder’s Court, 1906’

robertnwilkins@yahoo.ca