Published in the Montreal Gazette on September 21, 2013
When, in 1975, I first moved to the South Central (Centre-Sud) district of Montreal, I was struck by the number of cold water flats that still survived in the ward. Indeed, immediately behind my terrace house on St. André Street was found a series of just such home units, relics from a bygone era of our Victorian past.
Cold-water flats were just that – a working class accommodation with a one-faucet kitchen sink and a WC tucked into a corner of a room, usually the kitchen. There was neither hot water nor a bathtub in which to bathe. In fact, it was estimated, that in 1905, 75% of flats in certain blue-collar neighbourhoods of Montreal were in that very same situation.
At the insistence of a particular family, I visited one such structure in the summer of 1976. It was an experience I will always remember.
They were folks from the Gaspé, as I recall, and they had a wonderful vegetable garden at the back of the building in question. All kinds of trinkets and gadgets hung from the back gallery overlooking the lane. With the requisite used sofa on that same veranda, the overall impression was indeed vibrant.
(Below, photo I took of cold water flats on east side of St. Christophe Street in 1975)
Yet, I could not help but wonder: where did they bathe? It struck me as a rather indiscreet question so I didn’t ask it. Then, I suddenly remembered Montreal’s celebrated network of public baths, many of which are now closed.
Indeed, when I was a child in the mid 1950’s, my father would quite often take me with him for a pleasant diversion to Hogan’s Bath in Pointe St. Charles. For me, the trip there was also a thrilling escapade on the back of his motorcycle.
As late as the 1970’s, there was still a public bath in operation in the South Central ward of Montreal. It was named ‘Le Bain Généreux’, located on Amherst Street, directly opposite the old St. James Market. In fact, I used it many times in 1983 when the city water supply to my home was temporarily cut during renovations. I will always remember the tremendous water pressure that came from the public showers, as if one were standing under an open fire hydrant of warm water!
(Below, lobby of the Généreux Public Bath in 1957)
‘Le Bain Généreux’ was designed by Montreal architect Joseph-Omer Marchand and was officially opened in 1927 in the presence of Montreal Mayor Mederic Martin. It was named after the area’s alderman of the day. The edifice was planned in an Art Deco style and is quite similar to one in Paris.
Initially, the facility was opened six days a week but only on Tuesdays and Thursday for women! It was for the longest time the most popular in the network of city public baths, receiving some 87,450 bathers in 1940 alone.
(Below, the pool in the Généreux Public Bath in 1928)
(Below, swimming competition in the Généreux Public Bath in 1956)
Due to significant plumbing and heating problems, the Généreux Public Bath closed its doors for good in 1992. The beautiful building was recycled, however, into a museum that opened at that site in 1996.
‘The Ecomusée du Fier Monde’ is both a history and borough museum erected over the long abandoned pool that is still purposely visible here and there.
The facility encourages the visitor to step back in time and consider the South Central neighbourhood in the chronological context of the industrial revolution. Styled “A Coeur de Jour: Grandeurs et Misères d’un Quartier Populaire”, the permanent presentation maps out the ups and downs of one of Montreal’s more colourful communities. It is highly informative.
Until October 13, the museum also has a temporary photo exposition. Entitled “Chut, Regardez: A Fresh Look at Disability”, the intriguing display traces down through time society’s attitude towards the disabled. It is accompanied by a collection of very poignant contemporary images by Quebec-born photographer Guy Fortin. The complementary descriptive panels are in both French and English.
(Below, the Ecomusée du Fier Monde in 2012)
The Ecomusée du Fier Monde is open Wednesday – Sunday at varying hours. Telephone: 514-528-8444 or visit their website at ecomusee.qc.ca
Admission: $8.00; $6.00 for students, children, and seniors.