Published in the Montreal Gazette on August 31, 2013
In January of 1909, Governor Charles Amédée Vallée was confronted with a situation he had never encountered before in the nearly 18 years he had been chief administrator of the Old Montreal Jail at St. Mary’s Current. One of his prisoners, Rabbi Solomon Lombon refused, for religious reasons, to eat the prison food. “This is a jail, not a hotel”, said the rather gruff governor.
Rabbi Lombon, who was considered to be a somewhat colourful yet harmless eccentric, was charged with having slaughtered fowl “within a radius of 500 yards from any public market” in violation of civic by-law No. 386 adopted only two months earlier by City Council.
Released the following day after paying his fine, Lombon was back in the slammer within a short period of time for the same offense. When Rabbi Simon Glazer of the United Orthodox Congregation of St. Urbain Street arrived at the jail with Kosher food for Lombon, he was prevented from delivering it by the governor. Asked whether Lombon had eaten any prison food, Vallée answered bluntly: “I don’t know whether he did or not, but I am inclined to think he did. He received his allowance of soup and bread and syrup, and whatever the bill of fare contained. And although it’s nothing after the fashion of the Windsor Hotel diet, I have always found it sustaining, and I think the rabbi did.”
It was vintage Vallée.
Charles – Amédée Vallée was born in 1850 in the parish of St. Roch in the Lower Town of Quebec City. In his youth, he studied at the Collège de Lévis and later at the Académie Commerciale de Quebec. In 1868, Vallée joined the Papal Zouaves and was sent off to Rome to defend the Pope Pius IX against Garibaldi’s forces.
Upon his return to Quebec, he married and eventually moved to Montreal where he took up residence in a new dwelling at 377 St. Hubert Street, just south of Sherbrooke. There, two of the young couple’s children were born while Mr. Vallée worked as a bank manager for the Banque Nationale situated on Place d’Armes.
(below, the St. Hubert Street home of Charles Amédée Vallée from 1884 – 1889)
At the same time, Vallée developed practical political connections. One of his very close friends was Honoré Mercier, Quebec Premier from 1887 – 1891. In fact, it was Mercier who gave him, in 1891, the position of Governor of the Old Montreal Jail, a position Vallée willing accepted – with one condition. He insisted that an appropriate residence be erected at the prison in which he and his family could live. The government agreed and the Maison du Gouverneur quickly took shape.
Montreal architect Arthur Gendron designed the now detached house on the northeast corner of Notre Dame and Delorimier, front and centre of the Prison du Pied-du-Courant, as the jail compound was then known in French. Composed essentially of Montreal greystone and brick, the governor’s home cost $5,000 in the money of the day. Except for the somewhat eclectic façade with its sprinkling of neo-Gothic influence, the edifice was at the time completely enclosed by the rather bleak prison.
However, the elegant two-storey structure, which had little or no insulation, was exceptionally cold in the winter because of its proximity to the frozen St. Lawrence. Nevertheless, Governor Vallée seemed particularly happy living in the massive, multi- roomed building with his wife, Zoé, and their six children.
(below, lower left, the ‘Maison du Gouverneur’ pictured in September 2009)
He remained at the Maison du Gouverneur until he was transferred in 1913 to serve in that same administrative capacity at the newly opened Bordeaux Prison. Indeed, it was Vallée himself (by this time a respected penal and correctional authority) who was the principal contributor to the design of the new penitentiary in the north end of the city.
With Vallée’s departure from the Pied du Courant Jail, the Maison du Gouverneur sat abandoned for nearly eight years before it was taken over by the newly created Quebec Liquor Board (since 1970, La Société des Alcools du Québec). Today, it serves, along with the refurbished Prison des patriotes, as the head office of the SAQ.
While the state-run alcohol vending company made many early changes to the historic site, it was only in the late twentieth century that significant modifications were crafted throughout the compound, including the Maison du Gouverneur.
Under the inspirational leadership of the late Claude Bousquet, architect for the SAQ, Governor Vallée’s old Notre Dame Street home was, during a three-year period, tastefully restored, along with much of the dated Patriot Prison. Walls and adjoining wings were torn down such that the aged mansion is now totally free of any attached structures.
The basement of the old residence is currently used to store over 55,000 bottles of superior wine, obtainable mostly for sponsorship and charitable purposes. The Maison du Gouverneur was also used most recently by the Institut de tourisme et d’hôtellerie du Québec for part of its teaching curriculum. That programme, however, was abandoned a short time ago.
Today, the former domicile of Charles Amédée Vallée (who died in 1924) is in search of a new vocation. Fortunately, its protected status means that this beautiful heritage edifice will be with us for a long time to come.
While the Maison du Gouverneur is not at this time accessible to the public, the neighbouring Patriot Prison is. Located at 903 De Lorimier Avenue, La Prison des patriotes is open Wednesday to Friday, from 12:00 until 5:00 P.M. and on Saturday and Sunday from 9:30 A.M. to 5:00 P.M. There is no admission charge. Telephone number: 514-254-6000 #6245
(below, Charles Amédée Vallée, outside the prison compound)