Published in the Montreal Gazette on June 23, 2012.
A short time ago, while strolling the streets of the city centre, I came upon a recently – exposed early 20th-century advertising mural at the site of the old 1910 Eastern Township Bank building on the northwest corner of St. Catherine Street and Crescent. Not all of the bygone promotional painting (which was uncovered due to the levelling 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 the city for over a century, the oddity found itself gawked at by present-day Montrealers as if incredulous at its sudden and unexpected appearance.
The mural in question didn’t say much (or at least the part that had been exposed). Others, however, speak volumes.
One such ‘ghost mural’ was revealed not that many years ago during a demolition that 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. Once there, the foreman told me that the edifice that had just been dismantled was constructed, according to his information, in 1902, thus making the exposed advertisement also over a century in age. It covered the entire party wall of the two-storey neighbouring warehouse and promoted the importance of people purchasing only union – made shoes. “They Cost No More. The Only Guarantee Against Sweat Shop & Prison Labor,” the advert reads.
Most probably dating from the 1890s, if not earlier, the sign was in remarkably good condition, which is perhaps not surprising when you consider the fact that it was safeguarded from the elements for all that time. By the autumn 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.
Yet another impressive outdoor ghost mural made its unexpected appearance not that long ago on Sherbrooke West, near Patricia Street, in NDG. A fire in an adjacent building, and the eventual demolition of that same burnt out structure, revealed a marketing advertisement for the now discontinued Turret Cigarette which was in its day a product of Imperial Tobacco Canada.
The colourful, two storey – high mural was also in strikingly good condition and promoted twenty cigarettes sold for the astonishingly low price of only twenty-five cents!! That piece of information alone allows us to date the sign to the middle of the decade of the 1920’s. It was quickly hidden from view once again when a new building was erected next to it.
In addition to cigarettes and clothing, groceries were also promoted in this same fashion. In June of 2004, a painted advert for Lea & Perrins Sauce, “a world marvel”, surprisingly appeared with the demolition of an edifice on the west side of Boulevard St. Laurent, just south of Ontario. The somewhat tattered image came complete with the admonition to “look out for imitations”. Unfortunately, the wall advertisement was totally destroyed a year or two later.
Some century-old murals were never covered and yet still survive to this day, albeit in a rather faded form. One of the most prominent of these in the city centre is found on the upper storeys of the old Lindsay Building on St. Catherine Street, near Peel, not too far from Gazette offices. Dedicated to both the piano and the now defunct ‘phonograph’, the aged advert is clearly visible from the northwest corner of St. Catherine and Stanley Streets. The edifice was constructed in 1904 and there is little doubt that the mural dates from the same period.
They’re collectively called ‘ghost murals’ because they are today nothing less than silent witnesses to an earlier Montreal, a Montreal long-gone that somehow the vintage signs so enchantingly recall.
And to this very day, who knows how many other such findings lie hidden behind some seemingly innocuous city structures?