First published in the Montreal Gazette on Saturday, May 15, 2010.
When ‘Les Midis Financière Sun Life’ debuts their always popular concert series in Phillips Square this July, it will mark the second consecutive summer that the colourful event will be held in the celebrated downtown plaza. Until the 2009 edition, the musical happening habitually took place in Dominion Square. Regardless, Montrealers who frequent the performances this year will be doing so in a setting steeped in city customs and history.
Henry Birks was just two years of age in the autumn of 1842 when the land upon which Phillips Square stands was donated to the town by the family of Thomas Phillips, a Montreal alderman and committed conservationist, who had died earlier that same year.
Later in life, the Montreal jeweller magnate enjoyed recounting what the area encompassing the square was like during his childhood. On one occasion, in the autumn of 1907, he related how Phillips Place (as it was known in its very early days) was little more than a mass of trees so thick that they couldn’t be seen through. A narrow path passed from one end of the square to the other. A high fence surrounded the entire area.
As Birks told it, about 1852, a man, took advantage of the isolation of the site to hang himself from one of the trees. It was the park’s first recorded death, and the tragic event left a singular impression on the young merchant-to-be.
A dramatic suicide was not, however, to be the only violent episode to occur on the quaint square. On an otherwise quiet Monday lunch hour in the fall of 1983, a veritable Western – style high noon shootout took place there when undercover police officers surprised three bandits about to raid a nearby store – most probably Henry Birks. Heavy machine gun fire left two of the three brazen criminals in critical condition – while innocent Montrealers scurried for cover.
Happily, as befits the venue for a preferred summer music festival, most of the square’s history has been considerably more peaceful. In fact, in the very heart of the urban quadrilateral is the Philippe Hébert statue of King Edward VII the Peacemaker unveiled in September of 1914 by the Governor General of Canada, the Duke of Connaught, who just happened to be the late king’s brother. Until that year, Phillips Square was the only one in Montreal without a sculpture. Today, the statue is the very focal point of an urban space used frequently by Montrealers for social and political gatherings.
Each and every recital will afford ample opportunity for observation and reflection. With one’s back to the east side of the square, a sightseer can appreciate the enclosure of at least three imposing structures: The Bay (a great example of Richardsonian architecture), the Birks store, and the Canada Cement Building, which always looks best at night when its façade is illuminated. The latter building was constructed in 1922 entirely of reinforced concrete which, given its name, is perhaps not surprising. What is amazing, however, is the fact that the edifice has an underground garage, almost unheard of for an era when there were so few automobiles.
One historic structure is no longer there though. The Art Association Gallery (the precursor to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts) stood for thirty-three years on the east side of the square until it moved to its new Sherbrooke Street location in 1912. The building itself quickly found a new vocation but was, nevertheless, finally demolished in April of 1948.
Also no longer there are the colourful vespasiennes, or comfort stations, that were designed by Canadian architect Jean Omer Marchand. French-speaking Montrealers regularly referred to them as “camilliennes” after then – mayor, Camilien Houde, who had them constructed as make-work projects in the early years of the Great Depression. Two ventilation towers are all that remain of the two public facilities, both of which were closed and filled-in with soil in 1973.
Phillips Square is less than two thirds of an acre in size yet is arguably one of this city’s most venerable public places. Situated in the very central commercial core, and open to St. Catherine Street, the square is an ideal location for a summer music festival.
When the Sun Life – sponsored lunch hour concerts open on July 7, and continue for eight consecutive Wednesdays, spectators will be amiably entertained in an area which has long been pleasantly familiar to generations of Montrealers. And with each presentation lasting approximately fifty minutes, there is no excuse for not getting back to the office on time !
Further information and the full programme can be found at http://www.quebecvacances.com/les-midis-financiere-sun-life