Article appeared in the December 2006 edition of CONNECTIONS, the quarterly of the Quebec Family History Society, a Quebec anglophone genealogical association based in Pointe Claire.
Every now and then, when we are observant, we are gently reminded that ours is not the first generation of Montrealers to inhabit this island. Our everyday treks through this city whisper to us the undeniable fact that this venerable metropolis was and is the striking creation of many people – some of whom are still with us, and others – many others – who are long gone. This enchanting revelation is found in diverse forms in virtually all corners of the city. One variety – the simple publicity mural – is among my favourites.
Not that long ago, while walking the streets of downtown Montreal, I came upon the recently-exposed remainder of just one such early twentieth century advertising mural on the northwest corner of St. Catherine and Crescent at the site of the old 1910 Eastern Township Bank building. Not all of the bygone promotional painting (which was uncovered due to the demolition of the edifice next to it) was visible but that which was read, in English only, “where fashion and economy meet.” Hidden from the face of Montreal for decades, perhaps a century, the oddity found itself gawked at by present-day Montrealers as if incredulous at its sudden and unexpected appearance.
That particular mural didn’t say much (or at least the part that had been exposed). Others speak volumes. One such mural was revealed not that many years ago during a demolition which took place on St. Antoine Street just west of St. Denis. I spotted it as my car emerged from the Ville Marie Tunnel. I promptly parked and walked back to the site. There, the foreman told me that the structure that had just been dismantled was constructed, according to his information, in 1902, thus making the exposed advertisement about a century in age.
As I recall, it covered the entire wall of the two-storey neighbouring warehouse and promoted the importance of purchasing only “union – made shoes.” Most probably dating from the 1890’s, if not earlier, the mural was in remarkably good condition, which is perhaps not surprising when you consider the fact that it was safeguarded from the elements for all those years.
By the fall of the following year it was again hidden from public view by the construction of yet another building adjacent to it. One can only wonder what Montreal will be like should it once more be exposed a century hence.
Stain glass address plates – which are usually found immediately above the main entrance to a fine residence – can also be quite compelling. There is one on the Plateau-Mont Royal which survives to this day, despite the fact that the civic number of the building in question has changed at least three times since its original designation. The home’s replete Victorian facade also includes the year of construction (1884) and the name of the now long-deceased bricklayer (J.Brunet). All in all, the ghosts of Montrealers past.
Another manifestation of the bewitching presence of our urban ancestors is, of course, the buildings themselves. From dated cornerstones (both Arabic and Roman numerals) to rarely – noticed quirks found essentially anywhere on the facade of an enduring edifice, Montreal is, despite itself, still rich in just such diverse historic memorabilia. Who, for example, has ever noticed the engraved Star of David on the nearly century old old Blumenthal Building on St. Catherine Street? Perched high atop the seven-storey structure, this ancient religious representation has looked down upon the streets of the city for the longest time without scarcely being noticed by passers-by. Further down the road, an equally obscure image, this time of a long forgotten queen, embellishes the facade of the former Alexandra School on Sanguinet Street.
Occasionally only parts of an erstwhile property survive. For instance, consider the two massive stone fence end posts found on Guy Street just below the city centre. Constructed originally as part of the palisade which enclosed the now long gone Belmont School, the still solid structures date from the year 1878 when the institution in question officially opened under the name St. Antoine Academy. Those two weathered pillars are yet a silent though formidable witness to a bygone era of this city’s very colourful history. Their continued, haunting presence is a collective keepsake from a much earlier generation of Montrealers. However, these precious mementos are (as is the case in many cities) fast dwindling in number.
Sometimes an entire edifice survives only to face an uncertain future. The now forsaken St. Sauveur Church, directly across from the once majestic Viger Square, falls lamentably into this category. In this case, the structure in question even pre-dates Confederation and is one of just a scattering of such sanctuaries which still endure in Greater Montreal. Built in 1864 as an earlier Trinity Anglican Church and once home to the officers of the long-departed British garrison, this notable religious temple is a spiritual heirloom of monumental proportions, certainly more deserving of restoration than demolition.
Montreal (like all cities in Canada and elsewhere) is a steadfast enterprise of human achievement conferred from one age to another. In a sense, and in the fullness of time, those of us who live here have only a very brief hand in the shaping of this island metropolis. We must treasure and share our civic inheritance by protecting that which has, almost magically, survived the ravages of time. We owe it to ourselves and to those yet to come.